By Worthy News Middle East Service with reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos
CAIRO, EGYPT (Worthy News)-- Egypt on Sunday, January 23, blamed a Palestinian group with links to terror group Al-Qaeda of masterminding a New Year's church attack in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria that killed as many as 24 Coptic Christians.
Interior minister Habib al-Adly said there is "conclusive evidence" that the Army of Islam planned and executed the attack on al-Kidiseen Church, which also left about 100 others wounded.
"The Palestinian Islamic Army, which has links to Al-Qaeda, is behind the attack on the al-Qiddissin church in Alexandria," Adly said in a speech to mark Police Day, carried live on state television.
President Hosni Mubarak took to the stage to congratulate the police "for finding the perpetrators of the terrorist act in Alexandria."
In a reaction, the Palestinian Army of Islam denied any involvement in the deadly attack.
"The Army of Islam has no relation, whether close or distant, to the attack on the Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt," a spokesman for the group, who gave his name as Abu Muthanna, told French news agency AFP.
The bombing prompted protests by Christians saying the government failed to protect its Coptic minority.
Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 80-million population. Most Egyptian Christians are Copt, a word derived from the Greek name Aigyptos, which means Egypt.
Egypt has been rocked by terrorist attacks between 2004 and 2006, targeting lucrative tourist destinations on the popular Red Sea coast of Sinai. The Alexandria church attack followed reported threats to Egypt's Copts from the Al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that claimed an October 31 attack on a Baghdad church.
In 2010, six Copts were gunned down as they came out of a Christmas mass in the southern city of Naga Hammadi, in an attack that also left one Muslim policeman dead.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned the New Year's attack, saying the perpetrators were seeking to promote confrontation between Muslims and Christians.
Hamas reportedly cut ties with the Army of Islam in 2007, when the group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of British Broadcasting Corporation reporter Alan Johnston. But on Sunday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum defended the Salafist group.
"We confirm that the Zionist Mossad is behind the church crime in Alexandria," AFP quoted him as saying. "Our weapons are directed at the Zionist enemy and the conflict arena with that enemy is inside Palestine," he added, insisting that "Al-Qaeda does not exist in Gaza at all."
The Palestinian group accused of perpetrating the attack is a small outfit that espouses Salafist ideals, an austere form of Sunni Islam that seeks a return to the practices of the faith's early days, analysts say.