PARIS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday that Christian minorities in the Middle East are victims of "religious cleansing", following deadly attacks on churches in the region.
"We cannot accept and thereby facilitate what looks more and more like a particularly wicked programme of cleansing in the Middle East, religious cleansing," he said in an annual New Year's address to religious leaders.
An attack on a Coptic church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on January 1 killed 21 people.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for that attack, which came after threats published online against Copts from an Al-Qaeda-linked group which had said it was behind a deadly assault on a church in Baghdad in October.
Forty-four worshippers and two priests died in the attack on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad in October, the worst of a series of attacks against Christians in Iraq.
French security sources said this week they had launched an investigation on terrorism-related charges after a priest filed a complaint over threats made online against a Coptic church in France.
Police in France and several other European countries have boosted security at Coptic churches which were celebrating Christmas on Friday, according to the eastern Orthodox Church calendar.
"The threats that targeted the Coptic churches in France are unacceptable and I have asked the government to take them very seriously," Sarkozy said Friday.
"The Muslim community in France is horrified by these crimes committed in the name of Islam," he said. "Fundamentalist terrorism also kills Muslims."
In his address Sarkozy defended freedom of religion, a sensitive subject in France over the past year in which he notably passed a controversial law banning the wearing of the face-covering Muslim veil in public.
A debate has also emerged about Muslims praying in French streets outside overflowing Mosques. The practice offends some in France where secularism is strictly enforced in public life.
"The republic cannot accept that religion takes over public space without authorisation," Sarkozy said. "But that clearly implies that the republic also must keep its promise to allow everyone to have a decent place to pray."