Knife attacks in Alex churches

There's been another sectarian attack in Alexandria:

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Three knife-wielding assailants stabbed worshippers in simultaneous attacks during Friday Mass at three Coptic churches in the northern Mediterranean city of Alexandria, killing one person and wounding more than a dozen others, police officials said.

The attackers fled, and police cordoned off the churches and set up checkpoints in an effort to find them.

One worshipper was killed and at least two others were in serious condition, a police official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. Initial police reports said a total of 17 people were injured.

Hundreds of Christians gathered in angry protest outside the churches. Witnesses said clashes erupted between Christians and Muslims in the Sidi Bishr neighbourhood, the site of Saints Church, where 10 people were reported wounded in the knife attack.

Police said three people were wounded at the nearby Mar Girgis (St. George) Church, and four attacked at a church in Abu Qir, a few kilometres to the east.

The attack comes on what is Good Friday to many of the world's Christians. However, Egypt's Coptic Christians - and other followers of the Greek Orthodox church - celebrate the holiday a week later.
These are starting to happen more and more often and this one may be a continuation of the clashes late last year in Alexandria.

Between these attacks, the inability of the government to enforce new regulations that make it easier to build and repair churches, and mounting Coptic activism (as evidenced by numerous conferences in the US and in Europe in the past few months), the sectarian issue is coming slowly but surely to the fore. I was told by a reliable source a few days ago that Michael Mounir, a leading US-based Coptic activist, was in Cairo for meetings with senior officials recently. These included -- secretly -- Director of General Intelligence Omar Suleiman and President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak reportedly suggested to Mounir that he should act with the regime, not against it, and grumbled a few things about making further reforms. I can imagine the conservation -- "be reasonable, I gave you Christmas" -- and I hardly expect Mubarak to have more sophisticated views on Copts than he has on Shias.

Speaking of which, a friend of mine was meant to catch a Baghdad-Cairo plane today. But it was cancelled, as are all future Cairo-Baghdad liaisons. Guess why?

Update: Longer, updated wire story suggests it wasn't three simultaneous attacks but three attacks by the same man.:

Earlier, police officials said three men had been arrested in four simultaneous church assaults, one of them foiled by police. They said 17 people were wounded, and one later died.

There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancies between the reports. In the past, the government has tried to play down 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 a third church, he was stopped and arrested by police, the statement said.

It said one of the worshippers died of his wounds. The semiofficial Middle East News Agency identified the victim as Nushi Atta Girgis, 78.

Abdel-Raziq "suffers from psychological disturbances," the Interior Ministry said.

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.

"Stop the persecution of Copts in Egypt," read one banner.

Coptic Christians, who account for about 10 percent of Egypt's 72 million people, complain of discrimination in getting jobs, particularly in senior levels of government. They generally live in harmony with the Muslim majority, although violence flares occasionally.

"Hosni Mubarak, where are you? State security is between us and you!" some chanted.

Nearby, bloodstains 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 church where the 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."
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.