CAIRO – Egyptian Christians say they fear a repeat attack against their community on Coptic Christmas Eve Thursday despite authorities planning heavy security following a New Year's suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 21.
In response to the threats against the Christians by extremists, Egyptian activists have called on Muslims to form human shields in front of the churches on Christmas Eve as gesture of solidarity with country's Coptic Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people.
The bombing of the church, the worst act of sectarian violence in the country in a decade, touched off days of demonstrations and riots by the Christians blaming the government for encouraging discrimination and prejudice and not doing enough to protect them.
Some Christians have even said they will skip Thursday's Christmas Eve services for fear that there will be more attacks.
"I had a fight with my mother. She kept saying no churches this year. I wanted to go but my parents are afraid something might happen again," said Karim Monier, a 19-year-old student living in the middle-class neighborhood of Hadayak Helwan in southern Cairo.
Egyptian authorities have beefed up security around many churches all over country, with explosives experts on hand. Armored vehicles will be stationed in main squares in case of emergency.
Extremist Islamic websites affiliated with al-Qaida have been circulating lists of Coptic Churches in Egypt and Europe — including the one attacked on New Year's — along with instructions on how to attack them.
"Blow up the churches while they are celebrating Christmas or any other time when the churches are packed," the statement read.
Coptic websites have been worriedly circulating the lists of churches as a warning to their members and several European government have announced they will be increasing security at their own Coptic sites.
Mohammed Moussaoui, head of France's main Muslim group, said it will send a delegation to attend a Coptic Christian Christmas service in France on Friday.
The threats have sparked a backlash in Egypt, where there have long been sectarian tensions, and numerous groups are pushing for Muslims to guard the churches as human shields.
Prominent young Egyptian actor Khaled Aboul Naga called on Muslims in his blog not to "stand still while Coptic Egyptians feel unsafe in their worshipping places," and urged people to head to any nearby church to attend Christmas Eve prayers.
Past attempts by the country's activists to stand in solidarity with the Copts, however, have been punished by the government.
Following fierce riots by Christians on Monday night in Cairo's Shubra neighborhood, police only arrested activists that had come to show solidarity with the angry Copts.
On Wednesday, the general prosecutor referred eight members of the April 6 reform movement to a speedy trial set for the next day on charges assaulting police, disturbing public safety and sabotage — despite the involvement of hundreds of others.
"Based on the charges facing the eight activists, which do not need a comment regarding their absurdity, we can foresee that tomorrow's trial is meant as a harassment of the solidarity ... to attend the Coptic Christmas Mass tomorrow," warned the El-Nadim Center, a prominent human rights group.
Associated Press writer Angela Doland contributed to this report from Paris.