CAIRO (AFP) – Armoured cars were to be stationed next to churches in Egypt Friday as Coptic Christians celebrate their Christmas just days after a church bombing that killed 21 people.
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.
Some Muslims would also show up at churches to act as human shields in a show of solidarity with Egypt’s beleaguered Christian community, which accounts for 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people.
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.
Meanwhile, police released a sketch of the suspected Alexandria suicide bomber’s face, reconstructed from the remains of a severed head found on the roof of the church.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which came after threats to Egypt’s Copts from an Al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that had said it was behind a deadly October assault on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad.
The group, the Islamic State of Iraq, said it would attack Copts if their church failed to release two women it claimed were being held against their will after converting to Islam.
Several weeks before the attack, a website linked to Al-Qaeda published a list of Coptic churches it said should be targeted in Europe and Egypt, including the one bombed on January 1.
A security official in Jordan told AFP on Thursday that police in the capital Amman had also tightened security for Christmas services at two Coptic churches there after the Alexandria attack.
Around 3,000 Copts are estimated to live in the kingdom.
Several other countries, including Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands stepped up security around Coptic Christian churches in response to the threat.
The Alexandria bombing sparked days of protests and riots around Egypt that injured dozens of policemen and protesters.
President Mubarak has vowed to find those responsible for the New Year’s Day bombing, which he said targeted all Egyptians, regardless of their faith, and blamed “foreign hands.”