ALEXANDRIA - President Hosni Mubarak urged Egypt's Christians and Muslims to unite against "terrorism" after a New Year's bomb killed 21 people at a church, but tempers continued to flare hours later as Christian protestors clashed with police.
The interior ministry said evidence showed that the attack on a church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria was carried out by a suicide bomber and that it was the work of "foreign elements."
There was no immediate claim, but Al-Qaeda has threatened Christians everywhere, and called for punishment of Egypt's Copts, over claims that two priests' wives they say had converted to Islam were being held by the church against their will.
Click here to find out more!Click here to find out more!
A health ministry official in Alexandria said 21 people were killed and 79 wounded.
The interior ministry said eight of those wounded were Muslims, as there is a mosque across the street.
A witness had told private television On-TV that he had seen a car park outside the church shortly after midnight, that two men got out and that the explosion occurred almost immediately afterwards.
But the interior ministry ruled out the hypotheses of a car bomb, saying it was "probable that the bomb ... was carried by a suicide bomber who died among the crowd."
The device was packed with pieces of metal to cause the maximum amount of harm, it added.
And the circumstances of the explosion, "given the methods that currently prevail in terrorist activities at the global and regional level, clearly indicate" that that the bombing was "planned and carried out by foreign elements."
Nermin Nabil, who was injured in the attack, said hundreds of people were still inside the church at the time of the blast, and that "if the bishop had finished saying mass two minutes earlier, the bloodbath would have been worse." In a country suffering from growing sectarian tensions, Mubarak urged Christians and Muslims to unite and confront "terrorism."
He called on the "children of Egypt - Copts and Muslims - to close ranks and confront the forces of terrorism and those who want to undermine the security, stability and unity of the children of this nation," state news agency MENA said.
Pope Benedict XVI, during New Year's mass, urged world leaders to defend Christians against abuse and intolerance.
"I once again launch a pressing appeal not to give in to discouragement and resignation," said the pontiff.
And in Damascus, an official said "Syria strongly denounces this terrorist crime, which is targeting the national unity and religious pluralism of Egypt and other Arab countries."
Refaa al-Tahtawi, spokesman for Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's Cairo-based main institution of learning, denounced the attack and appealed for calm, as did a senior Coptic official, but to no avail.
Nearly 12 hours after the bombing, dozens of Christians were continuing to vent their anger. They clashed with baton-wielding police who had set up a cordon to block access to the church and shouted slogans against Mubarak's regime.
One demonstrator brandished a large cross to which were attached bloody remnants of clothing from the victims.
Protesters shouted "where is the government," blaming it for the incident and saying it was singling out the Copts because of their political views. "The government is involved," said Ishaq Habib.
"They want to break the Copts. They know that the Copts do not love Gamal Mubarak," the president's son, who has been widely viewed as a candidate to succeed him in power.
The attack came two months after gunmen stormed a Baghdad cathedral in an operation that left 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security forces dead. The attack was claimed by Al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, which said its purpose was to force the release of the two women in Egypt. "All Christian centres, organisations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen (holy warriors) wherever they can reach them," the group said.
"Let these idolaters, and at their forefront, the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican, know that the killing sword will not be lifted from the necks of their followers until they declare their innocence from what the dog of the Egyptian Church is doing," the ISI said.
It also demanded that the Christians "show to the mujahedeen their seriousness to pressure this belligerent church to release the captive women from the prisons of their monasteries."
Saturday's attack came just two days after more anti-Christian violence in Baghdad, when a series of bombings killed two Christians and wounded 16. Protection around Copt places of worship was discreetly stepped up after the threats, as Mubarak said he was committed to protecting the Christians "faced with the forces of terrorism and extremism".
The Copts account for up to 10 per cent of Egypt's 80-million population, and often complain of discrimination and have been the target of sectarian attacks.