Grief quickly transformed into anger on Sunday as a couple of hundred Christians returned to the church in Alexandria that had been bombed on New Year’s Day. At the morning mass, women sobbed against each other in the pews as the priests chanted. Afterward, men and women gathered in the church lobby, screaming angrily about a government they say has repeatedly failed them. The bodies and tangled wreckage of cars had already been cleared from the street outside, where 21 people were killed by the blast in the early hours of Jan. 1. But blood was still splattered across the outer walls of the Saints Church and a mosque across the street. Parishioners of the Coptic congregation crunched over broken glass, making their way through a crime scene with the bloody odor of a slaughterhouse. Hundreds of riot police stood by, blocking the ends of the street, but it was protection that the congregants say was absent when they needed it the most.
Authorities say the powerful explosion was set off by a suicide bomber who had packed his arsenal with nails and ball bearings that tore through a crowd of churchgoers as they exited midnight mass on New Year’s Eve. In addition to the dead, the explosion left 79 others wounded, and set nearby cars on fire, leading officials to conclude initially that a car bomb was to blame. Egyptian officials over the weekend painted the bombing as a brutal, foreign assault — though they have not directly accused al-Qaeda; Egypt has typically insisted that the international extremist group has no foothold in the country.
But no one at Saints Church seems to be buying those claims. Instead, many recalled on Sunday that the authorities had failed to help them in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, as Christians stormed the mosque across the street and clashes broke out along sectarian lines, Christians vs. Muslims and then between Christians and the police. “It wasn’t just the car bomb. It was after the car bomb — the police just stood there and watched as Muslims and Christians attacked each other,” says one parishioner, who gave his name as Abu Mark. Others say that when police finally did get involved, it was to hit back at the Christians. Some even accused the authorities of collusion in the attack. “It was the church that they targeted — not the Egyptian people as they are claiming on TV,” says one congregation member, Girgis Abdel Malak.
If they were targeting Muslims and Christians, why did it explode at 12:30 at night on a holiday, right when people were leaving the church?” says another, Samia Malak. No one goes to the mosque at that time of night, she points out.
The incident comes as Christian communities around the Middle East have come under increasing threat. Additionally, the Alexandria bombing is going to focus attention on Egypt’s worsening sectarian tensions. Already, Coptic anger over the bombing has inspired solidarity protests in Cairo, and with them, violent clashes between Christians and security forces. Coptic Christians, who make up a tenth of Egypt’s population, have long complained of government discrimination and neglect, while Muslims have accused the Coptic community, which is subject to slightly different rules and regulations, of preferential treatment and living outside the law.
Almost exactly one year ago, a gunman massacred seven people in the town of Nag Hammadi, following a Christmas mass. The parishioners of Saints Church say they see a clear continuum from earlier sectarian clashes to their own latest tragedy. “Discrimination against the Copts is a government policy, and that gets reflected in the behavior of the people,” says Victor Murab, the church’s rector. In an upstairs office on Sunday, church officials contemplated aloud how the influence of a brand of puritanical Islam from Saudi Arabia had made Egypt a far less tolerant place. “Al-Qaeda does not exist in Egypt in an organized sense,” says Murab, “but it’s here as an idea.”
Authorities on Sunday said that they had arrested 17 people in connection with the attack, according to al-Jazeera. But some observers say that simply putting the perpetrators behind bars won’t stop the sectarian divide from widening or growing more bitter. “The people they arrested for Nag Hammadi still haven’t been convicted. It has been a year,” says Fikry Gameel, a Christian who paints buildings. “I’m 80% sure this was al-Qaeda, but from inside Egypt. It was Muslims.”
Standing in the late-morning sunshine, on a street that glinted with tiny shards of glass, Gameel is hardly optimistic that the worst is over for Egypt’s Christian minority. “There was this car bomb, but I think there are more out there,” he says to his friends who shake their heads in angry concurrence. “The rest are coming.”