January 19, 2011 / 7:11 AM / 9 years ago

Egypt's Coptic Pope cancels mass over security fears

CAIRO (Reuters) - The head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church cancelled celebrations for the Feast of Epiphany on Tuesday over concerns for the safety of the country’s Christians after a New Year’s Day bombing that killed 23 people.

Egypt's Muslims and Christians, activists, politicians and intellectuals demonstrate in the capital Cairo January 7, 2011, to condemn the New Year's day attack on a Coptic church that killed up to 23 people in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

Officials suspect an al Qaeda-inspired bomber was behind the New Year’s blast outside a church in the port city of Alexandria. Islamist websites had carried repeated threats to attack churches and have since carried threats to strike again.

Pope Shenouda, who led mass on Coptic Christmas on January 6, in a tense but incident-free service, will hold a small and closed celebration on Tuesday instead of the larger mass that had been planned, the pope’s legal adviser said.

“Masses of Copts had decided to join the Pope in celebration, which caused fear for the lives of those people in the light of al Qaeda’s threats and the tense environment after Alexandria’s events,” Naguib Gabriel said.

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.

Alexandria’s 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, analysts say.

Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which attacked a church in Baghdad two months ago in what it called a response to the mistreatment of Muslim converts by Egyptian Copts, has threatened Egyptian Christians.

A statement posted on an Islamist website called on Muslims to “bomb churches during the Christmas holiday when churches are crowded”.

A Cairo-based priest said they were instructed to keep mass short and to prevent large gatherings outside of churches.

Security sources said however measures to secure the safety of worshippers were in place. Extra police had been deployed outside of the main churches during Christmas celebrations.

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