Egypt puts extraordinary security around churches

Egypt put up a heavy security cordon around the main Coptic Church hours before Christmas Eve Mass.

Cairo: Egyptian authorities put up a heavy security cordon early Thursday around the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo hours before Christmas Eve Mass, using bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors and officers to try to prevent another attack like the New Year`s suicide bombing of a church that killed 21 people.

Al Qaeda in Iraq had threatened Christians in Iraq and Egypt in the weeks leading up to the holidays, and militant websites have even posted online lists of churches in Egypt to target with their addresses.

Egypt`s Coptic Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of Egypt`s 80 million people, celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7. Some Christians have said they will skip Christmas Eve services for fear that there will be more attacks.

Across the country, police were preventing vehicles from parking near churches. They also planned to check identity cards of those entering churches and ban people from bringing in bags and pursues. Outside the Coptic cathedral in downtown Cairo, security officers with walky-talkies fanned out across the surrounding streets to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

In the southern province of Minya, a worker at a church found a small explosive device packed with nails and fireworks planted under the building`s stairs, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. He said the device appeared to have been put there to "test security measures."

Several daily newspapers reported that Egypt`s Interior Ministry has asked church officials to prevent crowds from gathering in front of churches after Mass. The request appeared aimed at avoiding the same sort of target hit in the Jan. 1 bombing in Alexandria — worshippers lingering outside of a church after a midnight service.

On Wednesday, the ministry published a picture of an unidentified man whose head was found at the site of the Alexandria attack. A security official said that church officials could not identify the man, and presumed that he might be the attacker.

But six days after the bombing, Egyptian authorities appear to have made little headway in their investigation. The perceived lack of progress has fanned fears among many Christians of possible repeat attacks.

Those concerns have grown since several Coptic websites circulated statements allegedly posted on Islamic militant websites listing more than 40 other churches in Egypt and abroad as possible targets.

The bombing of the Alexandria church, the worst act of sectarian violence in Egypt in a decade, touched off days of demonstrations and riots by the Christians blaming the government for encouraging discrimination and prejudice and not doing enough to protect them.

In a gesture of solidarity with the country`s Coptic Christian minority, Egyptian activists have called on Muslims to form human shields in front of the churches on Christmas Eve.

But in Alexandria, those still grieving the loss of family members killed in the Jan. 1 attack took little solace from the gesture.

"If our brothers, the Muslims, come today we will not say `no` ... but why today?" said Roseanne Fawzy, whose father was killed in the church bombing. "If they think that this is to protect us, no, we don`t need protection. The church is protecting us, God is protecting us, not humans."

Bureau Report

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