- Associated Press - Sunday, January 2, 2011

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian police are focusing their investigation into the New Year’s suicide bombing of a church on a group of Islamic hard-liners inspired by al Qaeda and based in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, where the attack killed 21 people, security officials said Sunday.

The bombing touched off riots and protests by Egypt’s Christian minority, who feel they are targeted and discriminated against and do not get adequate protection from authorities. There were signs of beefed-up security outside churches nationwide, and dozens returned to pray Sunday in the bombed, blood-spattered Saints Church — many of them sobbing, screaming in anger and slapping themselves in grief.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack on Coptic Christians leaving a midnight Mass about a half hour into the new year Saturday, the worst attack on Egyptian Christians in a decade. In the immediate aftermath, President Hosni Mubarak blamed foreigners and the Alexandria governor accused al Qaeda, pointing to threats against Christians by the terror network’s branch in Iraq.

But on Sunday, security officials said police are looking at the possibility that homegrown Islamic extremists were behind it and perhaps were inspired by al Qaeda, though not directly under foreign command.

Investigators also were examining lists of air passengers who arrived recently in Egypt from Iraq because al Qaeda in Iraq threatened Christians in both countries. They said they are looking for any evidence of an al Qaeda financier or organizer who may have visited Egypt to recruit the bomber and his support team from local militants.

Investigators also were examining two heads found at the site on suspicion that at least one was the bomber’s, state news agency MENA reported. The crime lab investigation found the explosives used were locally made and were filled with nails and ball bearings to maximize the number of casualties.

Egypt’s government long has insisted that al Qaeda does not have a significant presence in the country, and it has not been conclusively linked to any attacks here.

Egypt does, however, have a rising movement of Islamic hard-liners who, while they do not advocate violence, adhere to an ideology similar in other ways to al Qaeda. There have been fears they could be further radicalized by sectarian tensions. The hard-liners, known as Salafis, have a large and active presence in Alexandria.

The security officials cautioned, however, that the attackers may not necessarily have come from the ranks of the Salafis but more likely came from one of a number of small, fringe groups that are even more radical.

Alexandria, a famed city of antiquity that a century ago was home to a mix of Muslims, Christians, Jews and foreigners, has become a stronghold for Islamic hard-liners in the past decade. Stabbings at three Alexandria churches in 2006 sparked three days of Muslim-Christian riots that left at least four dead.

The security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation has not yet been completed, also said 25 people have been detained for questioning, but none of them was thought to be linked to the attack. They said the 25 were mostly owners of cars parked outside the church at the time, storekeepers and Muslim neighbors known to be Islamic fundamentalists.

Suspicion for the attack immediately fell on al Qaeda after the terror group’s branch in Iraq vowed to attack Christians in Iraq and Egypt over the cases of two Egyptian Christian women who sought to convert to Islam. The women, who were married to priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church, were prohibited from divorcing their husbands and sought to convert as a way out.

The women have since been secluded by the Coptic Church, prompting Islamic hard-liners in Egypt to accuse the church of imprisoning them and forcing them to renounce Islam. The church denies the allegation.

Al Qaeda in Iraq cited the Egyptian women in a claim of responsibility for the attack on a Baghdad church in October that killed 68 people. The group also has threatened Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christian community over the two cases, and the church attacked was an Orthodox Coptic church.

The attack was dramatically different from past violence against Christians, which included shootings but not serious bombings, much less suicide attacks. Christians, mainly Orthodox Copts, make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s mainly Muslim population of nearly 80 million.

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