* Health minister says 17 dead, media reported 21
* Officials suspect suicide bomber, foreign links
* Incident sparks sectarian protests, scuffles
* President says terrorists will not divide Egyptians
(Adds statement from Islamist website. Changes by-line)
By Yasmine Saleh
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, Jan 1 (Reuters) - A bomb killed at least
17 people outside a church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria
early on New Year's Day and the Interior Ministry said a
foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible.
Dozens of people were wounded by the blast, which scattered
body parts, destroyed cars and smashed windows. The attack
prompted Christians to protest on the streets, and some
Christians and Muslims hurled stones at each other.
Egypt has stepped up security around churches, banning cars
from parking outside them, since an al Qaeda-linked group in
Iraq issued a threat against the Church in Egypt in November.
Egypt's leaders were quick to call for unity, wary of any
upsurge in sectarian strife or other tension as the country
approaches a presidential election due in September amid some
uncertainty about whether President Hosni Mubarak, 82, will run.
A statement on an Islamist website posted about two weeks
before the blast called for attacks on Egypt's churches, listing
among them the one hit. No group was named in the statement.
Pope Benedict, the head of the Roman Catholic Church,
denounced violence against Christians in his New Year address
and appealed for religious freedom and tolerance. He said he
would host a summit of world religious leaders in Assisi in
October to discuss how to promote peace.
Germany and Iraq condemned the attack.
Saturday's blast did not originate in any of the cars that
were destroyed, an Interior Ministry statement on the official
news agency said. "It is likely that the device which exploded
was carried by a suicide bomber who died among others," it said.
The circumstances of this attack, compared with other
incidents abroad, "clearly indicates that foreign elements
undertook planning and execution," the statement added.
Mubarak promised in a televised address that terrorists
would not destabilise Egypt or divide Christians and Muslims. He
said the attack "carries evidence of the involvement of foreign
fingers" and vowed to pursue the perpetrators.
Health Minister Hatem el-Gabaly told Reuters there were 17
confirmed dead, 12 of them identified as Christians. Five bodies
had yet to be identified. He said initial assessments indicated
70 people were wounded.
State media earlier reported 21 killed in the blast, which
struck as worshippers marking the New Year left the church. The
ministry had initially blamed the explosion on a car bomb.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Muslim-majority
Egypt's 79 million people. Tensions often flare between the two
communities over issues such as building churches or close
relationships between members of the two faiths.
But analysts said this attack was on a much bigger scale and
appeared far more organised than the kind of violence that
usually erupts when communal frustrations boil over.
"This tragic incident certainly does not match any other
sectarian assault that my organisation has documented over the
past few years," said rights campaigner Hossam Bahgat.
His group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has
said the number of violent sectarian incidents has been rising.
After protests overnight, more than 100 Christians protested
on Saturday near the Coptic Orthodox church that was hit. "We
sacrifice our souls and blood for the cross," they chanted.
The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which claimed an
attack on a church in Baghdad in November, threatened Egypt's
Church over its treatment of women the group said the Church was
holding after they had converted to Islam.
A statement posted on an Islamist website called on Muslims
to "bomb churches during the Christmas holiday when churches are
crowded". It was not clear who was behind the statement that
listed churches in Egypt and elsewhere, including Alexandria's
Church of the Two Saints that was targeted.
The Orthodox Coptic Christmas is on Jan. 7.
Alexandria governor Adel Labib "accused al Qaeda of planning
the bombing", state television reported in a brief headline
without giving further details.
Kameel Sadeeq, from the Coptic council in Alexandria, told
Reuters: "People went in to church to pray to God but ended up
as scattered limbs. This massacre has al Qaeda written all over,
the same pattern Qaeda has adopted in other countries."
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. Two Christians died
and dozens were hurt, medical sources said. More than 150 were
Analysts say the state must address grievances such as those
over laws making it easier to build a mosque than a church if it
wants to stem such sectarian violence.
Officials are swift to play down sectarian differences and
have been keen to emphasise national harmony after a November
parliamentary election that opposition groups said was rigged,
and before the September presidential poll.
Mubarak, 82 and in power since 1981, is expected to run, if
he is able to. Gallbladder surgery in March revived questions
about his health, but he has returned to a full schedule.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed El-Shemi in Alexandria, Marwa
Awad and Mohamed Abdellah in Cairo, Firouz Sedarat in Dubai;
writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Janet Lawrence)
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