ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Christians clashed with Egyptian police in the northern city of Alexandria on Saturday, furious over an apparent suicide bombing against worshipers leaving a New Year's Mass at a church that killed at least 21 people. It was the worst violence against the country's Christian minority in a decade.
Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine said the death toll stood at 21, with 97 wounded, almost all Christians.
The Interior Ministry blamed "foreign elements," and the Alexandria governor accused al-Qaida, pointing to the terror network's branch in Iraq, which has carried out a string of attacks on Christians there and has threatened Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christian community as well.
Egypt's government has long insisted that the terror network does not have a significant presence in the country, and it has never been conclusively linked to any attacks in Egypt. If al-Qaida was involved, it raises the prospect of a serious new security threat within Egypt.
President Barack Obama condemned "this barbaric and heinous act" and said those behind it must be brought to justice.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went on state TV and vowed to track down those behind the attack saying: "We will cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt's security."
The bombing stoked tensions that have grown in recent years between Egypt's Christians and the Muslim majority.
It was dramatically different from past attacks on Christians, which included shootings but not serious bombings, much less suicide attacks. Christians have increasingly blamed the government for not taking violence against them or anti-Christian sentiment among Muslim hard-liners seriously.
"Now it's between Christians and the government, not between Muslims and Christians," shrieked one Christian woman as several hundred young men clashed with helmeted riot police in the street outside the targeted church hours after the blast. As the rioters threw stones and bottles, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them. Some of the protesters beat Muslim passers-by.
Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the midnight Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, said Father Mena Adel, a priest at the church.
The service had just ended, and some worshipers were leaving the building when the bomb went off about a half hour after midnight, he said.
"The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf," Marco Boutros, a 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital bed. "All I could see were body parts scattered all over — legs and bits of flesh."