ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) – A knife-wielding assailant attacked worshippers at Coptic churches in the northern Mediterranean city of Alexandria during Mass Friday, killing one person and wounding at least five before he was arrested, the government said.
The Interior Ministry identified the attacker as Mahmoud Salah-Eddin Abdel-Raziq and said he suffered from “psychological disturbances.”
Earlier, police officials said three men had been arrested in four simultaneous church assaults, one of them foiled by police. They said a total of 17 people were wounded, and one later died.
The discrepancies between the reports could not be immediately explained. However, the government has always tried to downplay incidents that can be perceived as sectarian in nature so as not to inflame tensions between the Coptic minority and Muslim majority.
“This morning a citizen attacked three worshippers inside the Mar Girgis Church in al-Hadhra with a knife and then fled and went into the Saints Church, where he attacked three other worshippers and again fled,” the ministry statement said. “While he was trying to enter into another Mar Girgis Church, he was stopped and arrested by police.”
The statement said one of the worshippers died from his wounds.
The semiofficial Middle East News Agency identified the victim as Nushi Atta Girgis, 78. “The suspect, Mahmoud Salah-Eddin Abdel-Raziq, works in a sweets shop. He suffers from psychological disturbances,” the statement said.
Alexandria police earlier said they had arrested three men in the attacks. One was said to have attacked two churches; one assaulted a third church; and the other was arrested during a foiled attack on a fourth church.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the detained men were carrying tranquilizing medication.
About 600 angry Copts, mostly young men, gathered to protest the attacks in the Sidi Bishr neighborhood, outside Saints Church. The area was ringed by about 200 riot police, and truckloads more were nearby. “Until when?” read one banner carried by protesters. “Stop the persecution of Copts in Egypt.”
Coptic Christians, who account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 72 million, complain of discrimination in getting jobs, particularly in senior levels of government, but they generally live in harmony with the Muslim majority, though violence flares occasionally.
“Hosni Mubarak, where are you? State security is between us and you!” some chanted. Meters away, blood could be seen on the top step of the church.
Government and church officials were trying to restore calm. “We are trying to calm the situation after many of our youth started protesting,” said Father Augustinos, who heads the Mar Girgis church where an attack was foiled. “We are telling them to calm down. It doesn’t do any good for the country to make protests. We want to live in peace and tranquility but these are people who had their family members killed or wounded. We are doing our best.”
Abdullah Osman, an official with the ruling National Democratic Party, said party officials and legislators were also doing what they could. “They went to the churches to explain that the attackers are insane and that the people should not blow things (out of proportion),” he told The Associated Press by telephone from Alexandria.
The attack comes on what is Good Friday to many of the world’s Christians. However, Egypt’s Copts, and other followers of the Greek Orthodox church, celebrate the holiday a week later.
Coptic Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 72 million and generally live in harmony with the Muslim majority, though violence flares occasionally.
Egypt’s last sectarian clashes were in Alexandria last October, when Muslims attacked churches and shops over the distribution of a DVD of a play deemed offensive to their religion. Four people were killed in weeklong riots.