CHATENAY-MALABRY, France – Christian Copts in Europe are under tougher new police protection following Internet threats against their European places of worship, even as some prepare special services in honor of the 21 Copts killed in a weekend massacre at a church in their Egyptian homeland.
Police in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries have increased surveillance of Orthodox Coptic Christian churches. In Italy, Copts have asked for special protection. And in Chatenay-Malabry, just outside Paris, metal barricades surround the church of St. Mary and St. Mark — a vivid sign of the fear that has been injected into the Copts' season of peace.
The Copts — Orthodox Christians from Egypt — will celebrate Christmas on Thursday.
A suicide bomber blew himself up Saturday as worshippers filed out of Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt, after midnight Mass. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Tens of thousands of Copts live in Europe, and community leaders fear the attacks will not be limited to the Middle East.
"This threat is serious for us. People are afraid," Pastor Arsenious El Baramousy, head of the Coptic church in Amsterdam, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "What happened in Alexandria could happen in Amsterdam."
It was not immediately clear how many threats against European Copts had been posted online, and when.
However, German authorities learned of a threat a week before the Alexandria attack. A spokeswoman for Germany's Federal Criminal Office said the office sent out a letter Dec. 24 to all state criminal offices in the country warning them about online threats against Coptic communities and churches in Germany, where about 6,000 Copts live.
The spokeswoman, who declined to give her name in keeping with department policy, said investigators for the Federal Criminal Office had seen the threat on a Web site. Though the threat was general, Germany was mentioned, she said.
On Dec. 31, four hours before the attack in Egypt, the head of the Coptic community in Germany, Bishop Anba Damian, sent a letter to the Interior Ministry expressing the community's fear of terror attacks and seeking protection ahead of the Orthodox Christmas celebrations Thursday and Friday.
Edmond Messchaert, spokesman for the Dutch National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, said police have been alerted to Internet threats against Coptic churches in the Netherlands.
"We gave them a heads-up yesterday to say be aware of the situation, know that this is playing up and just keep a close watch on any Coptic interests in your region," Messchaert said.
French police also tightened security at Coptic churches and are investigating online message threats against sites in France. France has the largest Coptic community in western Europe, with tens of thousands of faithful.
Under a sweeping roof that lifts skyward, sparkling lights in blue, yellow, red and green are strung about the interior of St. Mary and St. Mark, in the southern Paris suburb of Chatenay-Malabry. A small Christmas tree stands near the altar.
"We've never had such threats. Never. This is the first time," said the Rev. Guirguis Lucas, the pastor of St. Mary and St. Mark, who has lived in France for 43 years.
Lucas said he was made aware of an online threat — specifically mentioning his church — by a member of the congregation.
"What was written in this threat is that what happened in Alexandria is only the beginning, that there will be more attacks after, either in churches in Egypt, or in churches outside Egypt," Lucas said.
He said the message in Arabic was signed "Islamic Mujahedeen."
The church is among those in Europe planning a special service for Copts killed in Alexandria.
European Copts have until now been spared the threats and perceived discrimination that have been the lot of their brethren in Egypt, where this brand of Orthodox Christianity was born and makes up 10 percent of the population.
Italy, where Copts have asked for special police protection, wants the European Union to consider linking aid to religious freedom to better ensure protection for Christians in countries where they are minorities.
"Italy cannot be alone and isolated in the great global battle to ensure Christians aren't persecuted," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said, adding that he would raise the issue at a meeting Jan. 30-31.
Lucas, of the St. Mary and St. Mark church, said that most Copts came to Europe for economic reasons or because "they cannot find their place" in their homeland.
Despite the threats to their lives, Lucas keeps his eye steadily on his faith.
"We are worried, but we are not afraid," Lucas said. "We are never afraid. We are protected by God." However, he added, "We are doing what is needed to ensure security."
Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Mike Corder in the Hague and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.