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Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

'Tis the season

Religion | Christmas marked new kinds of attacks against believers from North Africa to the Middle East

Issue: "Babies are back," Jan. 29, 2011

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.

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"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.

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