CAIRO (AP) – Egyptian security were searching Thursday for the gunmen who opened fire into a crowd of churchgoers and killed seven in southern Egypt as they left a midnight Mass for Coptic Christmas.
The attack took place in the town of Nag Hamadi in Qena province, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the famous ancient ruins of Luxor.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said the attack Wednesday just before midnight was suspected as retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town. The statement said witnesses have identified the lead attacker.
The head of provincial security, Mahmoud Gohar, told reporters in that security agents have identified the lead attacker, an alleged known criminal, and his location has been determined. No arrests have been made yet.
Gohar said security was beefed up in the town and neighboring villages, and checkpoints were erected in the area as tensions ran high among the town’s Christian population. Gohar said an angry crowd from a nearby church smashed two police cars shortly after the attack.
Gohar said the attack happened in the main street about 200 meters (yards) from the church. He said nine people were injured in the attack, including three who were in critical condition.
Christians, mostly Coptic, account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population. As Islamic conservatism gains ground, Christians have increasingly complained about discrimination by the Muslim majority.
Clashes between Muslims and Christians are not uncommon in southern Egypt and in recent years have begun seeping into the capital.
Vendetta killing is also common among southern Egyptians, and is usually over land or family disputes.
Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hamadi Diocese told The Associated Press six male churchgoers and one security guard were killed. He said he had left St. John’s church just minutes before the attack and headed to his residence 600 yards away.
“A driving car swerved near me, so I took the back door. By the time I shook hands with someone at the gate, I heard the mayhem, lots of machine gun shots,” he said in a telephone interview. He said he saw five bodies lying on the ground from his vantage point.
The bishop said he was concerned about violence on the eve of Coptic Christmas, which falls Thursday, because of previous threats following the rape of the 12-year-old girl in November.
He got a message on his mobile phone saying: “It is your turn.” “I did nothing with it. My faithful were also receiving threats in the streets, some shouting at them: ‘We will not let you have festivities,”‘ he said.
Because of the threats, he said he ended his Christmas Mass one hour early. He said Muslim residents of Nag Hamadi and neighboring villages rioted for five days in November and torched and damaged Christian properties in the area after the rape.
“For days, I had expected something to happen on Christmas Day,” he said. The bishop said police have asked him to stay at home for fear of further violence.
Kirollos said the dead were mostly young male teens. Qena is one of Egypt’s poorest and most conservative areas.
An Amnesty International report said sectarian attacks on the Coptic Christian community, comprising between 6 million and 8 million people in Egypt, increased in the year 2008. Sporadic clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims left eight people dead.
The bishop said the attack could have been driven by vengeance. Yet, highlighting his fear for the Christian minority, Kirollos said the attack was carried out by “Muslim radicals.” “Suppose it is vengeance, where was the security?,” he said. “We are facing a religious war and lax security.”