Global Politics

Egypt's Christians under pressure

Egypt is on high alert after a New Year's Day suicide bombing at a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria. As Ursula Lindsey reports, the attack was just the latest violence targeting Christians in Egypt.

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Many Christians in the Muslim-majority country feel that they are not being protected. That anxiety rose after a church bombing in Alexandria on New Year's Day. A suspected suicide bomber killed 21 people and wounded 97 others outside a Coptic church during a New Year's midnight service.

The authorities have been holding seven people for questioning. But that hasn't calmed the nerves of Egypt's Christians.

A day after the attack, hundreds of Egyptian Christians took to the streets of Alexandria. Some clashed with riot police.

Demonstrators, like this man, called for justice for those killed in the bombing. He said, �All these people murdered, what have they done? They were just celebrating a new year, praying in a house of God. What is their sin? What did they do to deserve to die for nothing like that?�

The Egyptian Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. Copts make up about 10 percent of the country's population. Egyptians have long prided themselves on the good relations that exist between Christians and Muslims here.

But tensions have been rising in recent years. They've been stoked by militant Islamist groups who maintain that that East and West, Muslims and Christians, are at war.

In 2006, a man stabbed several churchgoers in Alexandria, leading to riots between Christians and Muslims. Last year, five people were killed in a drive-by shooting at a church on Christmas day.

Hours after the latest attack, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak condemned the bombing in a rare televised address.

�This sinful act is part of a series of efforts to drive a wedge between Copts and Muslims,� the president said. He added that �foreign hands� were behind the attack and called on all Egyptian to stand up to terrorism.

So far the government hasn't presented any information regarding the identity of the bomber, or who might be behind the attack. But critics say the government itself has fuelled the growing division between Christians and Muslims here.

They say in order to strengthen their Islamic credentials, the authorities have done little to confront religious bigotry and they've continued to discriminate against Coptic Christians.

Hossam Bahgat, with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says that Coptic Christians are underrepresented in government and academia, and he blames the authorities for that.

�It's been documented for years that Copts face discrimination in access to employment, particularly in public universities, public office,� he said. �There is a very low number of Christian candidates and members of parliament.�

Copts are also often denied the right to construct or restore their churches, and where Christians are required to convert to Islam to marry Muslims, Muslims are legally barred from converting to Christianity.

Critics add that when there are attacks on Christians, the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.

With the Coptic Christmas less than a week away, security has been increased at Egyptian churches. Still, many Christians here fear that it won't be long until there's another attack.

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