Cairo: Egyptian newspapers warned on Sunday that "civil war" could break out unless Christians and Muslims close ranks after a deadly attack on a Coptic church that triggered angry protests.
The authorities said that a suicide bomber blew himself up outside Al-Qiddissin church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria early on New Year`s Day, killing 21 people and wounding 79 others.
Protests by Christians and clashes with the police that erupted after Saturday`s attack could worsen and plunge Egypt into a new spiral of sectarian violence, the government and independent newspapers said.
The papers also urged the government to give serious consideration to the plight of the Copts who account for up to 10 percent of Egypt`s 80-million population and often complain of discrimination.
"Someone wants to make this country explode... We must realise that there is a plot aimed at triggering religious civil war," the pro-government daily Rose el-Yussef said.
Egyptians should foil attempts by "terrorists" to strike at the country, it said.
The independent paper Al-Shorouk said Christians had a right to be angry, but urged them not play into the game of "the instigators of (Saturday`s) crime”.
"No one can blame the Christian brothers if they are angry and disgusted," the daily said.
The bombing sparked anger among Christians, who clashed on Saturday for several hours with police and shouted slogans against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
"O Mubarak, the heart of the Copts is on fire," protesters shouted as they darted in and out of side-streets around the bloodied church to shower police with stones. Police fired tear gas grenades at the demonstrators.
Al-Shorouk said it would be "more dangerous for the Christians to be mired in their feelings of anger and frustration, than the attack itself."
"It would increase their isolation and the instigators of the crime would have then achieved their goal," it said.
"If all goes as planned, criminal operations against Coptic targets and holy places will increase. Copts will clash with their Muslim neighbours and we will be stuck in marshlands like Lebanon was in April 1975," it said.
A civil war broke out in Lebanon that month, lasting 15 years and pitting Christians against Muslims.
Another independent daily, Al-Masri Al-Yom, urged the authorities to take the bull by the horns and look beyond the security implications of Saturday`s bombing, including at the political, social and cultural aspects.
"We should not hide our heads in the sand. Some say that foreign hands are probably behind this crime. But we believe that if the national fabric is solid enough, no foreign faction could set the fire in our midst."
The solution lies "in a serious dialogue around this sensitive issue" of the Copts, Al-Masri al-Yom said.
The attack, which Mubarak has blamed on "foreign hands”, drew international condemnation with Pope Benedict XVI leading the fray on Saturday urging world leaders to defend Christians against abuse.
US President Barack Obama denounced "this barbaric and heinous act”, and the European Union "unreservedly" condemned the bombing.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) condemned "the vicious attack" and called for "proactive engagement in dialogue and partnership between Christians and Muslims in Egypt”.
Turkey and Israel have said they were "shocked" by the attack which Ankara on Sunday called a "cowardly terrorist" act.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Mubarak on Saturday to express solidarity.