Egyptians have spoken out strongly against the Sunday (December 11th) attack on a Coptic church in Cairo's Abbasiya district that killed 25 people and injured 31 others.
The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, attached to the Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, came under a suicide bombing attack .
The "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement circulated on social media.
The Egyptian Health Ministry said that 25 people died and 31 others were injured in the blast.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared three days of mourning for the victims, while Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Endowments issued statements condemning the incident.
Meanwhile, extremist websites and social media accounts linked with ISIL hailed the news, praising the perpetrators of the unprovoked attack and calling for increased bloodshed.
"Whoever committed this crime against the church is not a Muslim, but rather only a mercenary who sold his conscience and his patriotism to terrorist groups," said the Rev. Sameh Iskandar of Mar Mina church in Giza.
"The first and only target of this cowardly attack is Egypt itself, and not Copts alone," he told Al-Mashareq.
Attempt to sow sedition fails
"It is clear that terrorist groups want to divide the Egyptian people, who have coalesced as one in the recent period to confront terrorism, by targeting Christians in order to sow sedition between them and Muslims," Iskandar said. "However, it is impossible for this scheme to succeed."
Reactions to the blast are "the best proof of this Egyptian coalescence, as every Muslim religious leader, without exception, has visited the site of the incident and declared his condemnation and denunciation [of the attack]", he said.
This is in addition to a spontaneous demonstration conducted by a large group of Christian and Muslim youth near the site of the blast, Iskandar said.
"Islam advocates tolerance and love, not murder and treachery, and calls for the protection of churches, monasteries and Christian clerics, not killing and murdering them," said Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, who lectures at Al-Azhar's faculty of sharia and law.
"Accordingly, whoever committed this sordid deed and targeted worshipers at the church on Prophet Mohammad’s birthday is not a Muslim and has no connection to Islam whatsoever," he told Al-Mashareq.
"The same applies to whoever incited, supported and did the planning for him ," he added, noting that any attempt to cause strife between Muslims and Christians with terrorist acts like this will fail, as they have in the past.
ISIL promotes violence
Ain Shams University law student Nevine Atef told Al-Mashareq she goes to the cathedral every Sunday to participate in various activities for children and adults, and was there at the time of the attack.
As she was preparing educational materials in one of the halls, she said, "I heard a loud bang, followed by screams and the rush of a crowd in the external courtyard. I immediately rushed to the source of the smoke and dust and saw that it came from the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, where the priest had begun the Sunday Divine Liturgy".
"I will never forget the sights I saw inside the church," she said. "Body parts and bodies were scattered in the church, and the voices of the wounded filled the place."
A large number of women and children were killed or injured in the blast, she said. The church’s interior was totally destroyed and the icons and religious paintings were torn and many of them were covered with blood.
"It is unfortunate that the hand of terrorism has extended to mosques and churches and claimed the lives of innocent people in this horrible fashion," said terror group expert Maj. Gen. Yahya Mohammed Ali, a retired military officer.
"Terrorist groups are clearly bent on attacking Egypt in view of the ongoing war between them and the army in Sinai," he told Al-Mashareq.
It was to be expected that some sites in Egypt would come under attack in retaliation for the major crackdown on terrorists in Sinai , as well as in other parts of the region such as Iraq and Syria, he said.
"Terrorist groups operate within a single system, and their aim during this period is to ease the pressure on the besieged areas, which are being hit hard from land and air," he said.
"ISIL’s recent media releases have been calling for stepped up lone wolf attacks, which are difficult to prevent completely, not only in Egypt but anywhere in the world," he said.
"Such attacks are difficult to track, because only one person is moving and executing it, and he is often disguised or positioned deep inside the targeted area," he said.
Tightening security measures
The targeted church is not inside the cathedral but rather attached to it, with security personnel posted at its external entrances and private cathedral security personnel in charge of security inside it, Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Salem of the Cairo Police told Al-Mashareq.
Security measures are tightened further as the holidays approach and during public holidays, he said, noting that preliminary information indicates the attack took place in a section of the church designated for women.
It is difficult for a male to access this area, he said, which suggests that "a woman, or a man disguised as a woman placed the explosive".
The Minister of Interior ordered the formation of a special team to identify the perpetrators and called for guard duty to be stepped up at churches in all Egyptian provinces and patrols intensified in all regions to guard against new attacks.
"What happened is not surprising," media professional Adel Azmi, who works at the cathedral's media channel in al-Abbasiya near the site of the blast, told Al-Mashareq.
"The bombing of the church and killing of worshipers was to be expected from these terrorist groups," he said. "The strongest response to them would be to spread the culture of love and tolerance and not be drawn to strife and intolerance."
"The reactions by Muslims reflect the fundamental essence found in the hearts and mindsets of the Egyptian people, and it is the strongest evidence of the foiling of any attempt to disturb civil peace," Azmi said.