ALEXANDRIA – Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians to be strong in the face of violent intolerance in a New Year’s appeal that came hours after a fatal bomb blast outside an Egyptian church as worshippers left Mass.
The Pope condemned a widening campaign against Christians in the Middle East in his homily at St Peter’s Basilica, echoing comments last month in which he called a lack of religious freedom a threat to world security.
“In the face of threatening tensions of the moment, especially in the face of discrimination, abuse of power and religious intolerance that today particularly strikes Christians, I direct a pressing invitation not to yield to discouragement and resignation,” he said.
Benedict has repeatedly denounced a campaign against Christians in Iraq blamed on al Qaeda militants, including an October attack on a Baghdad Catholic church that claimed 68 lives.
The Vatican is concerned a steady exodus of minority Christians from Iraq will permanently reduce their numbers and discourage the wider community of Middle East Christians.
Benedict cited two negative extremes at work: secularism, “pushing religion to the margins to confine it to the private sphere,” and “fundamentalism, which instead would like to impose [religion] with force on all”.
The explosion outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria on Saturday killed at least 21 people, and sparked clashes between Egyptian police and Christians furious at the apparent suicide bombing – the worst violence against the country’s Christian minority in a decade.
Nearly 1000 Christians were attending midnight Mass at the Saints Church, said Father Mena Adel. The service had just ended, and some worshippers were leaving the building when the bomb went off.
Blood splattered the church’s facade, a painting of Jesus inside, and a nearby mosque. The blast mangled six cars on the street, setting some ablaze. As bodies were taken away after daybreak, some of the congregation waved white sheets with crosses painted in what appeared to be victims’ blood.
The Interior Ministry blamed “foreign elements” and the Alexandria Governor accused al Qaeda, pointing to its branch in Iraq which has made a string of attacks on Christians there and threatened Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christian community as well.
Egypt’s Government insists al Qaeda has no significant presence in the country, and it has never been conclusively linked to any attacks. If al Qaeda is involved, it raises a serious new security threat within Egypt.
This was very different from past attacks on Christians, which included shootings but not serious bombings, much less suicide attacks. Christians have increasingly blamed the Government for not taking anti-Christian violence sentiment seriously.
“Now it’s between Christians and the Government, not Muslims and Christians,” shrieked one Christian woman as several hundred young men clashed with riot police outside the church hours after the blast.
Rioters threw stones and bottles, police firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them. Some of the protesters beat Muslim passersby.