CAIRO, (AFP) — A Coptic church in the Egyptian town of Rafah bordering the Gaza Strip was in flames on Saturday, with witnesses reporting a blast although a local official denied an explosion was the cause.
Witnesses said they saw flames coming out of the Mar Girgis church in Rafah after hearing an explosion. Armed men on motorbikes were spotted near the church, one of them said.
North Sinai’s governor Abdel Wahab Mabruk, however, denied on state television there had been any explosion in Mar Girgis.
The church had been left without police guards at the time of the fire, witnesses said, after security forces disappeared en masse amid nationwide rallies calling for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.
Security is usually in place around Christian places of worship after several attacks against Copts and had been boosted after a bombing in Alexandria at the turn of the year.
A suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Coptic church in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria after a New Year’s Eve mass at the start of 2011, killing 23 people.
In 2010, six Copts were gunned down as they emerged from a Christmas mass, in an attack that also killed a Muslim policeman.
Egypt’s Christian community comprises 10 percent of the predominantly Sunni Muslim country’s population of more than 80 million, and complains of systematic discrimination.