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Christians protest Egypt church bombing

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt - Christians clashed with Egyptian police in the northern city of Alexandria yesterday, furious over an apparent suicide bombing against worshipers leaving a New Year's Mass at a church. At least 21 people were killed in the worst violence against the country's Christian minority in a decade.

The interior ministry blamed "foreign elements," and the Alexandria governor accused al-Qaida, pointing to the terror network's branch in Iraq, which has carried out a string of attacks on Christians there and has threatened Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christian community as well.

Egypt's government has long insisted that the terror network does not have a significant presence in the country, and it has never been conclusively linked to any attacks here. If al-Qaida was involved, it raises the prospect of a serious new security threat within Egypt.

President Barack Obama condemned "this barbaric and heinous act."

The bombing, about a half-hour after the start of the new year, stoked tensions that have grown in recent years between Egypt's Christians and the Muslim majority. It was dramatically different from past attacks on Christians, which included shootings but not serious bombings.

Christians have increasingly blamed the government for not taking violence against them or anti-Christian sentiment among Muslim hard-liners seriously.

In the wake of the New Year's bombing, they unleashed their rage at authorities.

"Now it's between Christians and the government, not between Muslims and Christians," shrieked one Christian woman as several hundred young men clashed with helmeted riot police in the street outside the targeted church hours after the blast. As the rioters threw stones and bottles, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them. Some of the protesters beat Muslim passersby.

Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending midnight Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, said the Rev. Mena Adel, a priest at the church. The service had just ended, and some worshipers were leaving the building when the bomb went off, he said.

Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine said the death toll stood at 21, with 97 wounded, almost all Christians.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that it was likely the blast was detonated by a suicide bomber and that the attack probably involved "foreign elements."

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