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  • Sunday ,09 January 2011

New Year 2011 in Alexandria , An evening of terror


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Sunday ,09 January 2011

New Year 2011 in Alexandria , An evening of terror

It took a mere 30 minutes into New Year 2011 for tragedy to strike in Alexandria. Just as worshippers began pouring into the street once Midnight Service was over at the Church of the Saints in the eastern district of Sidi-Bishr in Alexandria, a horrible explosion occurred. A bomb blew off claiming the lives of more than 20 persons and injuring 80. The scene was one of horror, body parts flew around and blood spattered up to some 10 metres high, staining the walls of the church and nearby buildings. Eyewitnesses told Watani that once the explosion took place, other cars parked nearby caught fire. Later declarations by security sources said the explosion was caused by an explosives belt worn by a suicide bomber but, until Watani went to press no official report had been released.

The carnage
Watani’s Soliman Shafiq, who was in Alexandria, rushed to the scene of the explosion. The explosion, he says, blew upwards, hurling passersby up and blowing them to pieces. The upward explosion created a vacuum, he says, which drew in bystanders only to be bombarded by the falling debris. 
Inside the church, a strange coincidence occurred. Even as the Midnight Service ended and the congregation started leaving, Father Maqar asked the worshippers to stay on for one last hymn. Everyone joined in singing O Lord of Hosts when the terrifying explosion was heard and the glass windows of the church shattered. Video clips taken for the service at that moment show the women screaming and the men panicking, while Fr Maqar tried to calm them down with a firm: “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid”. They went out to encounter a scene of grizzly bloodshed; all they could do was to hold a short, tearful prayer service for the dead and the wounded. 
Pope Shenouda III was informed of the tragedy. He quickly delegated Anba Pachomeus, Archbishop of Beheira, to rush to the Church of the Saints. Anba Pachomeus arrived there at 2:30am and managed to calm the Copts, who had been violently protesting, and persuade them to go into the church for the security men and investigative authorities to do their work. The prosecutor-general Abdel-Megid Mahmoud ordered an immediate investigation.
Muslim blood in Coptic veins
Security forces, fire trucks, ambulance cars, and civil defence officers had already rushed to the scene. The wounded, among whom were a large number of women and children, as well as eight Muslims were moved to hospitals in Alexandria. Three critical cases were air-lifted to Cairo for more specialised medical help. Last Monday, the Health Minister Hatem al-Gabali announced that all the wounded will be treated at the expense of the State.
Saturday morning a call was sent out through TV channels that blood was needed for the wounded who mostly suffered from first and second-degree burns and from bone fractures. Several had to have limbs or part of limbs amputated. Some 500 persons in Alexandria donated blood. Manal Salah, director at the regional centre for blood transfusion in Alexandria told Watani that the blood donated far exceeded the needs of the wounded, and that the excess blood would go to the blood bank. A colleague at Watani received a SMS from a Muslim friend who said: “I have donated blood for the wounded. It is the only thing I could do. I am happy that my blood may eventually run in Coptic veins.”
Where were the guards?
Hours after the explosion, it was announced that the criminal investigation revealed that the bomb was local-made and that it had contained nuts and metal balls to cause maximum damage. An opinion was expressed by security sources and media persons that the explosion was typical of explosions conducted in countries other than Egypt, which could indicate, they said, that external hands were behind the crime. Investigations are ongoing. The security source also said that a police officer and three policemen who were on duty guarding the church were among the wounded. Worth noting, however, is that several eyewitnesses, among whom were George Sanad and Peter Fawzy, who talked to Watani insisted that the guards were not at their posts during the explosion; they had left their posts some 20 minutes earlier and returned at the sound of the explosion. Had they been there, the witnesses said, they would have been the first victims since the explosion took place right in front of the booth they are stationed in.
Coptic wrath
Once the wounded had been carried away by the ambulance cars, Coptic wrath exploded. Angry Copts clashed with the security forces, hurling at them stones and empty bottles. They also hurled stones at the mosque right across the street, upon which a Muslim crowd responded with counter violence, burning a Coptic-owned nearby grocery and a car. The security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, but calm only reigned when Anba Pachomeus arrived at 2:30am. 
The angry protests spread to Cairo the following day. Until Tuesday Copts demonstrated in various districts in Alexandria, Cairo, and in other regions in both the Delta and Upper Egypt—in Sidi-Bishr, Shubra, Muqattam, Imbaba, Maspero at the Egyptian Broadcast and TV building, and at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo—expressing an outpour of pain and wrath. They demanded protection from extremist, terrorist acts; a fair investigation and trial, and the dismissal of Alexandria governor Adel Labib and security officials who were seen to have fallen short of doing their duty in protecting the Copts. Some of these demonstrations involved thousands of demonstrators who eventually clashed with the security men; 17 demonstrators were detained. 
On the other hand, Muslims demonstrated at Gamal Abdel-Nasser Street near the church in Sidi-Bishr in solidarity with the Copts, while others demonstrated against the Copts.
President Mubarak
On Saturday morning President Hosny Mubarak went on national TV. In a speech which lasted a few minutes he offered his sincere condolences to the victims’ families and declared that the crime hurt all Egypt, that indications pointed at the involvement of external hands, and that terrorism would be dealt with ruthlessly.
Also on Saturday, the clerical council of Alexandria and its Coptic community council issued a joint declaration in which they announced that the explosion had left [at that time] 21 dead other than unidentified body parts that were estimated to belong to four persons, in addition to 80 wounded most of whom are in serious condition.   
The declaration said the attack “threatens the security of our nation, and marks a serious escalation in sectarian incidents against Copts. The council reminds that, four years ago, this same church was the scene of a sectarian attack that left one dead and several injured; a fact finding commission formed by Parliament then never, to date, found its way to the church.
Burying the dead
Saturday evening saw the funeral service for the dead held at Mar-Mina monastery in the Western Desert, some 70km southwest of Alexandria, attended by 5000 mourners. Predictably, with Coptic nerves raw and hearts bleeding, the security authorities could not risk unrest in Alexandria had the funeral been held there. The bodies and the unidentified body parts were taken to the monastery in 17 ambulance cars. At 8pm the funeral service started with Anba Pachomeus, Archbishop of Beheira, presiding over the ceremony. Participating were Bishop of Youth Anba Moussa, Bishop-General Anba Boutros, Abbot of Mar-Mina monastery Anba Kyrillos, Bishop of Downtown Cairo Anba Rafael, and Bishop-General Anba Yu’annis. When Anba Yu’annis stood up to thank President Mubarak and State officials for their condolences, the congregation protested in anger and heatedly called for the dismissal of Alexandria governor Adel Labib. 
The dead were buried in a mass grave which was hastily prepared at the monastery earlier that same day.
Official condolences and condemnation of the attack poured in from local and international figures, prominent among whom were President Obama, President Sarkozy, and Pope Benedict XVI, as well the al-Azhar in Cairo and the Coptic Catholic Church.
“First drop of the torrent”
In the meantime, a declaration posted on the Internet announced that the Mujahideen Electronic Web claimed responsibility for the attack. Even though the Mujahideen denied the claim—and no other group or organisation claimed responsibility for the explosion—they posted a strongly-worded declaration that read: “This is just the first drop of the torrent. You should hand over our hostages and convert to Islam. If you do that you are safe, if you don’t, then the sword is between us”. 
The ‘hostages’ alluded to in the declaration referred to two women, Wafaa’ Qostantine and Kamilia Sheahta, both priests’ wives who, because of domestic problems had fled their homes in 2004 and 2009 respectively. Both were later escorted back by the security authorities and are said to be staying, at their own free will, at some Church premises where they are safe and away from any social pressures which may prove intolerable. Islamists claim they have converted to Islam and are kept by the Church against their will, a claim the Church categorically denies. Al-Azhar, the only authority in charge of registering official conversions to Islam, denies any of the women ever converted.
The Mujahideen had earlier posted on their website a list of the Egyptian churches and their addresses, which were targeted on New Year’s Eve. Among these churches was the Church of the Saints. To date several churches inside and outside Cairo have received threats of attacks on Christmas Eve—Copts celebrate Christmas on 7 January.
The Mujahideen concluded their statement by applauding Egypt’s Muslims on their deeds, “This is how you should deal with Copts”, they said.