Egypt Muslims form human shields at churches

Fear stalks Egypt's churches at Coptic Christmas


In a show of solidarity with Egypt’s beleaguered Christian community, some Muslims showed up at churches on Friday to act as human shields as Copts celebrate their Christmas after a New Year's Day bombing killed 21.

Egypt continued to tighten security on Friday and drivers were banned from parking in front of churches, which were being tightly monitored by explosives detection teams and police, said a police official. Under the Coptic calendar, Christmas Day falls on January 7.

The measures came after Egypt's Coptic Christians attended Christmas Eve services Thursday behind cordons of steel put up by security forces.

Security officials said at least 70,000 officers and conscripts had been deployed across the country to secure churches as Copts attended Christmas Eve mass.

Police said one primitive explosive device -- a tin can filled with fire crackers, nails and bolts, but with no detonator -- had been found in a church in the southern city of Minya.

The official Al-Ahram newspaper reported that security would also be tightened around tourist resorts.

Hundreds of worshippers gathered on Thursday at the Saints Church in Alexandria, the site of Saturday's bombing. They were guarded by dozens of police and anti-riot vehicles.

In Alexandria, 27-year-old Maureen, dressed in black, said: "To survive, we Copts must confront our fear and pain. We have to be stronger than the terrorists. That's why I am coming to mass."

Maher, 50, arrived for the mass with his wife and two daughters. "Our sorrow is great, but we feel stronger because of the support of our Muslim compatriots," he said.

Others converged on Saint Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, where the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenuda III, conducted the service, attended by several government members and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's two sons Alaa and Gamal.

In Moqattam, a poor Cairo district with a large Coptic population, residents said the threat of further attacks would not deter them from going to church.

"With al-Qaeda's threats, we anticipate further attacks but we are not afraid. God protects us," said Adel al-Wazir.

Pope Benedict XVI, who described the Alexandria bombing as a "cowardly gesture of death," sent his "heartfelt greetings and best wishes" to those now celebrating Christmas.

He deplored the "martyrdom of a large number of innocent people" in his homily Thursday.

"May the goodness of God... strengthen the faith, hope and charity of everyone and give comfort to the communities that are being tested," he said in an address to pilgrims in Saint Peter's Square.

Egypt's Muslims and Christians have co-existed for centuries, and occasional clashes are often the result of family or business disputes or cross-faith relationships, not ideology.

Christians, one tenth of the population, complain of discrimination in the job market and a lack of representation in government, the army and business. A perception of growing intolerance is leading some to shun their Muslim compatriots.

The church bombed at New Year was previously targeted in 2006 when a man attacked worshippers at two churches during Mass, killing one person and wounding five.

A year later, Christian shops in the area were attacked during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday after rumours spread of a love affair between a Muslim woman and a Christian man.

One year ago, six Copts and a Muslim policeman were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church after midnight Mass. Orthodox Copts celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

Copts voiced fury last year when Muslim radicals chanted slogans against Christians and insulted Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda at demonstrations as police stood by.

Recipe for violence

The New Year attack was the worst against Christians in decades and drew attention to the state's handling of sectarian riots. Rights groups say police have been too slow to punish violence motivated by religion, sending a message that it is acceptable.

Copts said the government should prosecute rioters instead of urging victims to accept reconciliation. "It's a recipe for a recurrence of these violent attacks," said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Some pointed to a deeper problem -- a gradual Islamisation of education promoting a single, Islamic version of Egypt's identity that belies its diverse cultural history.

"Our school books are preaching Islamisation," said Youssef Sidhom, the Christian editor of weekly newspaper Watani. "The Coptic history of Egypt is to a vast extent withdrawn... The syllabus uses Islam as the source of all traditions and norms."

Some young Copts, usually fiercely loyal to their church leaders, have begun to criticise them for keeping too low a profile and allowing political Islam to influence state policy.

"Many within the Coptic community are now feeling a threat to their very survival, their very presence," said Bahgat.