World

Muslims protect churches

Muslims  protest alongside Christians in Cairo, after the New Year's day  attack on a Coptic church that killed 23 people.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany, Reuters

Muslims protest alongside Christians in Cairo, after the New Year's day attack on a Coptic church that killed 23 people.

Hassen Jouini, Agence France-Presse; with files from National Post · Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011

Muslims offered themselves as "human shields" on Friday to protect Coptic Christians celebrating their Christmas in Egypt just a week after a church bombing that killed 21 people.

Armoured cars were also stationed near churches filled for Christmas services and drivers were banned from parking in front of churches, which were being tightly monitored by explosives detection teams and police, said a police official.

Under the Coptic calendar, Christmas Day falls on Jan. 7.

Dozens of police were deployed around the Saints Church in Alexandria which was targeted in Saturday's attack.

Security officials said at least 70,000 officers and conscripts had been deployed across the country to secure churches as Copts, who account for 10% of Egypt's 80-million population, attended mass.

Egypt's Ahramonline reported that droves of Muslims had turned up at Coptic churches to act as "human shields."

It quoted Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon credited with first floating the "human shield" idea, as saying, "We either live together, or we die together."

"This is not about us and them," Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly, told Ahramonline.

"We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together."

The Daily News Egypt reported that the front pew at a church in the Cairo district of Omraneya was filled with prominent Muslims from the neighborhood.

In his sermon, Father Hanna thanked the Muslims for attending.

"This is the way our Egypt climbs new heights and become prosperous," the paper quoted Father Hanna as saying.

At the Cleopatra Church in Heliopolis Khaled, a Muslim attendee, said, "It's an honor to be among you today and [to] celebrate [Coptic] Christmas with you."

On Thursday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's two sons Alaa and Gamal attended a Christmas Eve mass at Saint Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, where the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenuda III, conducted the service.

On Friday, about 100 opposition group members in Cairo gathered in a demonstration of solidarity with the Copts.

"One people, one blood," they chanted.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday that Christian minorities in the Middle East were victims of "religious cleansing," following attacks on the church in Egypt and one in Iraq.

A series of attacks against Christians "looks more and more ... like a particularly wicked programme of cleansing in the Middle East, religious cleansing," Mr. Sarkozy said in an annual New Year's address to the world's religious leaders.

Forty-four worshippers and two priests died in an attack on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad at the end of October.

In Egypt, police have released a sketch of the suspected Alexandria suicide bomber's face, reconstructed from the remains of a severed head found on the roof of the church.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which came after threats to

Egypt's Copts from the al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that claimed responsibility for the attack on the Baghdad church.

Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands also stepped up the security around Coptic churches in response.

At the Saint Mark's Coptic Church in Montreal, Robert Mishriky, a businessman and church official, said a private security firm was hired for mass for the first time.

"Tonight, we used a private security firm which sent three officers, one to watch for cars and two inside the church to watch bags and monitor people. We have never done that before," Mr. Mishriky said.

Approximately 250,000 Coptic Christians live in Canada, which has 14 Coptic churches.

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