Analysts: Mideast Christians Easy Target for Qaida

Al-Qaida would seem to have found an easy target in Middle Eastern Christians who have a limited ability to respond, but such attacks could easily escalate into sectarian clashes, analysts say.

Responsibility for the apparent suicide bombing early on New Year's Day at a Coptic church in Alexandria in which 21 people were killed and 79 were wounded has not yet been claimed, although Cairo has indirectly implicated al-Qaida.

In claiming an October attack on a church in Baghdad in which 46 Christians were killed, al-Qaida affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) also threatened the Coptic church, accusing it of holding against their will two priests' wives they say had converted to Islam.

And in December, al-Qaida-linked website Shumukh al-Islam had al-Qiddissin (The Saints) church in Alexandria, where Saturday's bombing took place, on a list of targeted Coptic places of worship.

"Christians are an easier and weaker target than other" communities, said Bahrain-based analyst from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Emile Hokayem.

This is "a new strategy for al-Qaida, as attacking Shiites was politically too costly and the Shiite militias were able to retaliate and inflict serious damage," he said of the Sunni militant group in Iraq.

"Attacking U.S. forces (also) carries the threat of retaliation, (whereas) the Christians can't retaliate," said Hokayem.

After Sunni militants bombed a Shiite shrine in Samarra in Iraq in 2006 inter-confessional fighting erupted and claimed thousands of lives.

"Al-Qaida believes that everyone who isn't a Muslim is an apostate, and therefore it has the right to kill them," said Saeed al-Gamahi, a Yemeni analyst who specializes in the study of radical Islamist movements.

"Al-Qaida is attempting to provoke unrest between Muslims and Christians and to cause sectarian clashes, and perhaps a civil war" in Egypt, he said.

The Islamist network wants to "cause chaos in a country it has so far failed to settle in."

Saturday's attack in the Mediterranean port city sparked angry street protests, with clashes between hundreds of Christian youths and police.

Tensions spilled over again late on Monday as protesters in a northern Cairo neighborhood threw rocks at police who tried to block a march by thousands of Copts.

Egypt was on high alert ahead of the Coptic Christmas Day on Friday -- the weekly Muslim day of prayer and rest -- and Coptic leader Pope Shenouda III has said he intends to say mass as usual on Christmas Eve.

Security at Coptic churches in Europe and Canada has also been boosted after threats.

Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, argues that the Alexandria bombing alone is not enough to conclude that al-Qaida has decided a change in strategy.

The group's top leadership, including founder Osama bin Laden and his Egypt-born deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, have not explicitly called for Christians to be attacked, he said.

"The targeting of Eastern Christians would lead to a widespread confrontation in the region which would benefit Israel," he warned.

In Lebanon on Monday, An Nahar daily pointed to what it called a "permanent Arab September 11," a reference to the attacks on the United States in 2001.

"This is a dangerous scheme under which violence is moving across Iraq, Egypt and probably other Arab countries which still enjoy religious diversity and a large Christian presence, among them Lebanon," the daily wrote.

Another Lebanese daily As Safir said the Alexandria attack could signal "an earthquake in Egypt and the future of the Arab world."

The cradle of Christianity, the Middle East region is home to 20 million Christians in a total population of more than 356 million people, according to the Vatican.

All analysts agree on the fact that these attacks can only strengthen the exodus of Christians from the Middle East.

In December, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported an "exodus" of thousands of Iraqi Christians after the October 31 church massacre in Baghdad.

Attacks such as those on churches in Baghdad and Alexandria will "increase Christian paranoia and fears in the whole region and the belief of the Christians that they are not wanted," Hokayem said.

"It will give momentum to emigration in the region where numbers of Christians are already dwindling."

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