The Peninsula Qatar - The first day of the New Year has brought shock and sorrow to the people of Egypt and the region as a suicide bomber killed at least 21 people and left more than 70 injured outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers left a new year service. The dastardly attack drew worldwide condemnations and Egyptian officials were struggling to reassure the world that the country was safe for minorities.
The governor of Alexandria, Adel Labib, accused Al Qaeda of planning the bombing. “The Al Qaeda organisation threatened to attack churches inside Egypt. This has nothing to do with sectarianism,” he told state television. His assessment was shared by Kameel Sadeeq of the city’s Coptic Christian council. “People went in to church to pray to God but ended up as scattered limbs,” he told Reuters. “This massacre has Al Qaeda written all over, the same pattern Al Qaeda has adopted in other countries.” President Hosni Mubarak went on state TV and vowed to track down those behind the attack, pledging “we will cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt’s security”. He added that the bombing was an attack on “all Egypt” and that “terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim”.
Christian-Muslim clashes have tarnished Egypt’s image in the recent past and have drawn international flak. Pope Benedict denounced violence against Christians in his New Year address and appealed for religious freedom and tolerance, and among other countries, he might have Egypt in mind. Mubarak has said that foreign elements and terrorists are trying to foment sectarianism and create chaos. But the government cannot absolve itself of responsibility. It needs to crack down on trouble makers with an iron hand and provide adequate security to churches and Christians. Yesterday’s blast could have been averted had security been beefed up. Also, Coptic Christians being a minority in the country, accounting for only ten percent of the total population, the government must do enough to guarantee religious freedom and take action to dispel charges of discrimination.
In the current situation, terrorists seem to be winning. Following the blast, hundreds of Christians took to the streets, clashing with police and Muslims. Some Christians and Muslims pelted each other with rocks after a mosque was reportedly targeted. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowds. Images of the violence were telecast across the region and the world, in the process showing both Egypt and this region in bad light.
Egyptian authorities will have a tough task bridging the deep divide between the two communities. Whatever the costs, the government of Hosni Mubarak needs to act fast. If not, the country will end up paying a higher price.