CAIRO – A deadly church attack in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria is drawing widespread condemnations, with Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, terming the bombing as running against the tenets of Islam.
"Wicked terrorists targeted the nation, Copts and Muslims," President Hosni Mubarak said in a televised address, Reuters reported.
He said that the terrorists would fail in any plans to destabilise Egypt or divide Muslims and Christians.
At least 17 people were killed when a car bomb exploded outside al-Qidiseen church shortly after the Coptic Christian midnight mass on New Year's Day.
Dozens of people were wounded by the blast, which scattered body parts, scorched cars and smashed windows.
Mubarak said the attack "carries evidence of the involvement of foreign fingers”, calling on the authorities swiftly to round up those behind the attack.
Last month, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, threatened to attack Egyptian Christians after a deadline for Egypt's Coptic Church to release two priests' wives the group said they had reverted to Islam.
After the threat, Egypt stepped up security around churches, banning cars from parking directly outside them.
The Interior Ministry said that Saturday’s attack carried the hallmarks of “foreign elements”.
The circumstances of the incident and other recent attacks, "clearly indicates that foreign elements undertook planning and execution,” it said.
Alexandria governor Adel Labib "accused al Qaeda of planning the bombing", state television reported in a brief headline without giving further details.
According to the CIA World Fact Book, Muslims make up 90 percent of the country's 80 million people, Copts 9 and other Christians 1 percent.
Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, condemned the church attack as running against the true spirits of Islam.
"This is a criminal act that can never be justified (in) any religion," Al-Azhar spokesman Mohammed Tahtawi told Nile TV.
“Islam specifically prohibits any attacks on religious places. As a matter of fact, it tasks Muslims with protecting religious places of worships for Muslims and non-Muslims.”
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Dr Ahmed El-Tayyeb has rejected any threats against Christian Copts and their worship places.
“The church is in the shield of Al-Azhar,” El-Tayyeb said in an interview with Al-Mosawwar magazine.
“Muslims are demanded to defend all worship places, not only mosques but also churches.”
The Muslims Brotherhood, the most powerful opposition group in Egypt, also condemned Saturday’s bombing.
“MB vehemently condemns this criminal blast outside Alexandria’s church,” the group said on its website.
The former MP Hussein Ibrahim, the head of the group’s administrative office in Alexandria, also denounced the blast, calling for calm and solidarity among Muslims and Copts.
Simmering tensions occasionally flare up into violent incidents between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
Last January, a drive-by shooting of six Christians and a Muslim policeman at a church in southern Egypt sparked protests.
In November, hundreds of Christians clashed with riot police, and with some Muslims who joined in, in Cairo in protest against a decision to halt construction of a church. Officials said the Christians had no licence to build a church.