CAIRO – In rare criticism, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church has called on the government to address Christian grievances about discrimination — and urged his flock to quell violent rioting over a New Year's Day church bombing in Alexandria that killed 21.
Investigators said Monday that they were focusing on unidentified remains from the bombing, including a severed head, that may be linked to the attacker, a security official said. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst on Egyptian Christians in a decade, but security officials now say police are looking at homegrown Islamic extremists, perhaps inspired by al-Qaida.
Typically in suicide bombings, the head of the attacker is flung away by the blast but remains in one piece, and police are now trying to reconstruct the face, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The interview Monday with Coptic Pope Shenouda III on state television came as hundreds of predominantly Christian protesters clashed with riot police in northern Cairo in late-night protests over government policies.
The 87-year-old church leader appealed to the government to address Christian complaints, especially of laws restricting freedom of worship.
"The state also has a duty. It must see to the problems of the Copts and try to resolve them," Shenouda said. "If there are laws that is an unjust to some, the state should correct many laws.
The pope said the unprecedented attack on the Saints Church in Alexandria had "caused panic" among Muslims and Christians, but he appealed for calm among his flock and warned that political activists might use protests to push their anti-government agenda.
"Problems are solved with calm and communication, not with anger and emotions," he said, while acknowledging that the tensions were fed by the Christian community's long-standing grievances.
"There are laws that are painful to some, and despite our commitment to the laws, the pain is still there, and this needs to be addressed," he said, while counseling patience to Christians.
The bombing touched off three days of protests involving clashes with both security forces and Muslim passers-by in the area around the church in Alexandria.
The community, which makes up 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million, complains bitterly of discrimination in building its churches and in the job market. It also thinks the government is not confronting rising conservative Islamic prejudice in society.
In northern Cairo, police surrounded hundreds of protesters in tight cordons near the Shubra neighborhood's main church, while youths dashed out of sidestreets and pelted their armored cars with rocks.
Riot police beat the protesters with their batons and an Associated Press photographer on the scene saw at least five people injured, including two bleeding from head wounds. A priest eventually convinced security forces to open their lines and allow the protesters to disperse.
Protesters also attempted to block a nearby highway with burning tires and threw rocks at passing cars.
In Alexandria, police cordoned off the area around the church that was attacked to prevent further protests. Church supporters prevented a local construction company from repairing the damage to the building because parishioners want to keep the blood of the dead on the walls as a reminder, said a local priest.
"They don't want to erase the blood of martyrs," said Father Mena of the Saints Church.