EGYPT: Authorities on high alert to protect churches after Al Qaeda threat
Newspapers reported Tuesday that the Ministry of Interior had tightened its security presence and police patrols around all churches in Cairo and other provinces across the country. Worshipers will also be thoroughly searched before entering any church.
An eyewitness in the Qena, where six Copts and a Muslim were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church on Jan. 7, said that no fewer than six security vehicles were positioned outside his neighborhood church. He added that no cars were allowed to park within about 300 yards of the area.
The red alert comes after Al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Iraq attacked the Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad during a Sunday Mass attended by 120 worshipers. At least 58 were killed and 75 were wounded during the raid.
After taking full responsibility for the assault, Al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq offshoot issued a statement giving Egyptian Coptic leaders a 48-hour deadline to release two females who are allegedly being locked up in Christian monasteries in Egypt after they converted to Islam.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the threat. Experts played down Al Qaeda's threat, but warned of its consequences, which can lead to escalating tension between Copts and Muslims in the most populous Arab country.
"Al Qaeda's threat is just bogus," analyst Amar Ali Hassan said. "Nonetheless, this was expected in light of repeated failures by the Egyptian government to resolve the sectarian problem."
Al Qaeda's move might give ideas to other would-be militants, "unknown to security forces and to individuals who are upset with the way the matter has been dealt with by the government and who may carry out individual attacks against the church," he added.
Sporadic conflicts between Egypt's majority of Muslims and Copts, who makeu up an estimated 10% of the country's population, have been on the rise.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: Archive photo of a demonstration outside a church in Egypt. Credit: Associated Press