For some Egyptian Christians, a new reality grips their weekly routines: "Before we go to church we have to kiss our families goodbye, because we may never see them again."
That's what one Egyptian Christian told an American ministry partner hours after a terrorist detonated a bomb at Saints Church in Alexandria as worshippers left a New Year's Eve service. The attack killed at least 23 of the 1,000 attending midnight Mass at the Coptic Christian church, and wounded nearly 100.
The bombing marked the worst violence against Egyptian Christians in a decade, and signaled a dramatic turn for the oppressed minority in the Islamic country: Instead of discrimination, drive-by shootings, and smaller-scale violence that Christians have faced in the past, this attack brought a stunning introduction to full-blown terrorism.
"The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf," 17-year-old survivor Marco Boutros told reporters from his hospital bed. "All I could see were body parts scattered all over-legs and bits of flesh."
Another witness told the evangelical aid group Barnabas Fund that she saw Muslims streaming from a nearby mosque after the attack, shouting the Islamic exclamation used as a war cry: "Allahu Akbar," or, "God is great."
Attacks by militants in Egypt and other parts of the Islamic world during the week-long period from Christmas to New Year's underscored a disturbing surge in violence against already-persecuted Christians. The suspected connections to broader terrorist networks suggest the frightening trend may grow worse, and leave the West grasping for ways to confront terrorism in nations considered allies.
Though leading Muslims in Egypt denounced the Alexandria bombing, local authorities believe that Islamic extremists inspired by al-Qaeda may be responsible. Investigators hoped to learn more after examining a head recovered at the scene that may belong to a suicide bomber.
While it wasn't immediately clear whether foreigners or locals executed the attack, the al-Qaeda connection makes sense: In the weeks before the deadly blast, al-Qaeda-linked websites offered a how-to manual on "destroying the cross." The sites listed addresses for Coptic churches in Europe and Egypt-including the church in Alexandria-and issued a mandate: "Blow up the churches while they are celebrating Christmas or any other time when the churches are packed."
During the attack, the Alexandria church was packed with Coptic Christians-the region's largest and oldest Christian community. Copts comprise an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's population. (Evangelicals represent less than 5 percent of the population.)
Conditions for Egyptian Christians are oppressive: The application process to build or renovate a church can take 30 to 40 years and requires presidential approval. Muslims converting to Christianity can't change their religious affiliation on state-issued identity cards, and authorities sometimes arrest converts. The government usually fails to prosecute violence against Christians, and state-sponsored media and mosques foment animosity against Christians, with accusations that the minority group is stockpiling weapons to wage war against Muslims.
Last year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported a "significant upsurge" in violence against Copts. A U.S. State Department report in November said the Egyptian government's failure to prosecute crimes against Copts "contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults."
Tensions deepened when Muslims accused Copts of imprisoning two women for converting to Islam and trying to divorce their husbands. Church leaders deny the charges, but an al-Qaeda-linked group cited the cases as the reason for the deadly October attack on a Baghdad church, signaling that Islamic militancy crosses borders.
Copts responded to the Egyptian attacks with mass protests, expressing outrage and accusing the government of failing to protect Christians. In an email interview after the bombing, Habib Ibrahim of the United Copts of Great Britain said the Egyptian government showed "great laxity and indifference" to violence against Christians, and said the ongoing cycle "makes collusion more likely than complacence."
(In a telling moment during a protest in Cairo, The New York Times reported that a high-ranking state security officer approached a group of demonstrators holding candles to remember the dead. The official slowly and methodically blew out each candle.)
Battered Egyptian Christians aren't alone in coping with violence. Between Christmas and New Year's Day, suspected Islamic extremists killed or arrested scores of Christians in the Middle East and Africa: Militants killed at least two Christians and wounded 16 in targeted bombings on Christian homes in Iraq on Dec. 30. Intruders killed Rafah Toma-a Christian woman who survived the October attack on a Baghdad church that killed 52-while she slept in her home.
Elam Ministries reported that Iranian police arrested at least 25 Christians in Tehran and other cities the day after Christmas. The group reported that special security officers entered the Christians' homes while they slept, handcuffing and imprisoning them without legal representation. The report said authorities wrested at least two married couples from their infant children.
The highest death toll from violence came in Nigeria, where armed men and bombers killed over 40 victims in Christmas Eve attacks across the country. Authorities reported that suspected Muslim radicals killed at least six in attacks on churches (see sidebar), and 35 more in bombings near Christmas shoppers.
Even moderate Muslims weren't immune: In Pakistan, a bodyguard killed Salman Taseer on Jan. 4 (see p. 34). The governor of the Punjab province had spoken against the Islamic country's blasphemy laws, and called for the pardon of a Christian woman sentenced to die for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Thousands of Pakistanis attended his funeral, but supporters of his assassin also gathered at an Islamabad courtroom to shower the gunman with rose petals.
Nina Shea, a Hudson Institute senior fellow and USCIRF commissioner, says the multi-country violence and terrorism signals a strengthening of al-Qaeda, and that governmental failures to staunch extremism in places like Pakistan and Egypt make the problem worse: "The whole culture becomes radicalized when it's allowed to progress."
Shea says the U.S. should more directly confront Egypt-a key ally in the Middle East-about violence against Christians: "I think it's time to condition aid on the protection of this minority."
President Barack Obama, who called for a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim world during a 2009 speech in Cairo, condemned the Egyptian attack: "The perpetrators of this attack were clearly targeting Christian worshippers. . . . They must be brought to justice for this barbaric and heinous act." Human-rights groups will be watching closely to see if the Egyptian government breaks its pattern and prosecutes perpetrators, and whether the United States will hold Egypt accountable.
In the meantime, Middle Eastern Christians are coping with the ongoing threats and dangers: Black-clad Copts returned to church for somber services, even with blood still splattered on the walls.
Elam Ministries reported that one of the Iranian Christians arrested after Christmas managed to leave a voicemail message for friends. "Unfortunately early this morning the authorities came to our homes. They arrested us and many other believers," he said. "I want to ask you to pray for us. We are sure God will never leave us or forsake us. . . . Sorry for giving you bad news over Christmas, but I believe God will do something for us."
Horror unfolded quickly at Victory Baptist Church in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on Christmas Eve: A gang of nearly 30 attackers armed with guns and knives stormed the church, killing two young men practicing for a late-night carol service.
A handful of thugs burst into the adjacent home of the church's pastor, 37-year-old Bulus Marwa, dragging him into the street and shooting him to death. The gang killed two passers-by before torching the church and the pastor's home, and fleeing the scene. An hour later, three men attacked the Church of Christ in Nigeria across town, killing a 60-year-old security guard. Earlier in the day, in the central city of Jos, attackers detonated bombs in markets full of last-minute Christmas shoppers. Authorities said 40 died in the initial violence and perhaps 40 more in subsequent rioting.
The attacks offered a gruesome end to a year full of violence in Africa's most populous country. Clashes between Muslims and Christians in the country's so-called Middle Belt killed hundreds, including more than 300 Christians slaughtered by Muslim militants in March.
Authorities believe that Boko Haram, an extremist Islamic group in Nigeria with ties to al-Qaeda, is responsible for the church attacks. In an internet posting, the group also claimed responsibility for the Jos bombings.
From his home in the capital city of Abuja, Christian leader Olaolu Oladeji said violence in the Middle Belt by forces from the Muslim north have a central purpose: "They want to come and displace those who are Christians, so that the Muslims can take over and Islamize the region."
Oladeji is the Nigerian director for Bible League International, an evangelical organization that supports local churches by training pastors and providing Bibles. Oladeji said many moderate Muslims have supported Christians, but extremists pose a constant threat. He said while some Christians in the region are fearful, many others are courageous: "They want to stay in the land and defend their faith."
Oladeji hopes that Christians will pray for Nigerian believers, especially as presidential elections approach in April. Some worry that political instability could bring more violence. But the Christian leader said that security isn't ultimately grounded in police forces or government protection: "Our hope is in God. We know that except the Lord keeps the house, the watchman keeps it in vain."
Dec. 24: Maiduguri, Nigeria
• 6 church workers killed in attacks
Dec. 24: Jos, Nigeria
• 32 killed and 80-100 wounded when three bombs exploded among Christmas shoppers
Dec. 26: Tehran, Iran
• 25 Christians arrested by government special security officers
Dec. 30: Baghdad, Iraq
• 2 killed and 20 wounded in bombings of 10 Christian homes
Dec. 31: Alexandria, Egypt
• 23 killed in bomb blast at Saints Church