By Kareem Fahim and Liam Stack
A bomb, possibly worn by a suicide attacker, ripped through a throng of worshipers outside of a Coptic Christian church in the port city of Alexandria, Egypt, early Saturday, killing at least 21 people in the worst attack against Egypt’s Christian minority in recent memory.
Egypt’s Health Ministry said that at least 96 people were wounded in the blast, which occurred shortly after midnight outside the Saints Church as the New Year’s Mass was ending and congregants headed to the doors.
By Saturday evening, patches of blood were visible high on the front walls of the church, which was pockmarked with holes. Across the street, a mosque was also stained with blood.
“There were bodies on the streets,” said Sherif Ibrahim, who saw the blast’s aftermath. “Hands, legs, stomachs. Girls, women and men.”
Government officials quickly blamed foreign terrorists for the bombing and called for national unity. In a televised address hours after the bombing, President Hosni Mubarak said that the authorities had found evidence of “foreign fingers,” adding: “We are all in one trench. We will cut off the head of the snake, and confront terrorism and defeat it.”
But within hours of the explosion, clashes between angry Christians and the security forces outside the church were reminders of a long-simmering domestic conflict.
Periodic violence between members of Egypt’s Muslim majority and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people, have led to accusations that the government ignores, and even exacerbates, a dangerous sectarian divide. Officials often blame local conflicts for such violence, dismissing talk of sectarian tension.
Over the last year, those tensions were repeatedly marked by violence. Last January, Muslim gunmen opened fire on worshipers leaving a church in southern Egypt, killing seven people. In November, Christians angered that the authorities stopped construction on a church clashed with the police in Cairo, leaving one person dead.
There was no clear indication on Saturday of who was behind the bombing, though it followed a warning of sorts from overseas. Last month, a threat appeared on a Web site that claimed to represent a militant group affiliated with Al Qaeda, called the Islamic State of Iraq. The group claimed responsibility for the siege of a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad in October that left about 60 people dead.
The warning, which promised more violence, referred to a church in Egypt, which it said was holding two women because they had converted to Islam.
Several people who saw the explosion said it had come from a car bomb. Sameh Atallah said that around 12:15 a.m., a man got out of a car in front of the church. “He was talking on the phone for not even a minute and his car exploded,” Mr. Atallah said.
In a statement, the country’s Interior Ministry said a preliminary investigation pointed to a suicide bomber and not a car bomb. It said the investigation had found that a locally made explosive, filled with nails and ball bearings, was worn by a bomber who was killed in the attack.
There seemed to be some agreement that the attack, because of its ferocity and the possible involvement of a suicide bomber, represented something new. Diaa Rashwan of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that while Al Qaeda has no presence in Egypt, “This is a new method. It has Al Qaeda features. I think it is a group of Egyptians who were planning this for a while.”
Outside the church late Saturday night, interviews revealed a fractured community. People who identified themselves as Christian were quick to say that Egyptians were behind the bombing, while Muslims said it was the work of outsiders.
“We’re going to die here,” said Mr. Ibrahim, who saw the bombing’s aftermath. “But our churches are here. Our lives are here. What will we do?”
Writing after the bombing on Ahram Online, its editor, Hani Shukrallah, criticized “supposedly moderate Muslims” for being “narrow-minded” and blamed the government for amplifying sectarian tensions.
It was time, he wrote, for Egyptians to face up to a hard reality: “The massacres continue, each more horrible than the one before, and the bigotry and intolerance spread deeper and wider into every nook and cranny of our society.”
An Egypt without Christians was no longer hard to imagine, he wrote, adding, “This will be an Egypt which I do not recognize and to which I have no desire to belong.”
Kareem Fahim reported from New York, and Liam Stack from Alexandria, Egypt. Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.