Coptic Christians in Canada are imploring police to step up security at churches during this week's orthodox Christmas celebrations, as they brace for any copycat violence after last weekend's suicide bombing in Egypt.
Fallout from the slaying of 21 people at an Alexandria church is causing political turmoil in Egypt and ripples of fear to spread in diaspora communities through the West. Yet Copts in Canada say they will still turn out in droves this week to celebrate the birth of Christ.
"We have strong faith that God is protecting us as his people. But, on the other hand, we are expecting that authorities do their part," said Rev. Angelos Saad.
He and his officials are to meet local police Tuesday to discuss security measures. The fear is that terrorists could target his 2,000 congregants during the midnight mass on Jan. 7.
Canadian authorities are insisting there are no known credible threats. Yet in Europe, authorities are stepping up security at some churches in France and Austria.
Al-Qaeda-inspired groups have essentially declared war on Copts in recent months. The ancient Christian sect, which adheres to the Julian calendar, predates Islam and still accounts for 10 per cent of the Egyptian population.
The New Year's Eve bombing at a church in Alexandria killed 21 people and wounded nearly 100. The attack has turned global attention to the Copts' complaints that they face discrimination and persecution in the Muslim-majority nation. Christian rioters in Cairo are burning tires and throwing stones at police, as they accuse President Hosni Mubarak of failing to protect them.
"That's pretty unprecedented. You've never had thousands of young Christians in the streets," said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail from Cairo, she said the terrorist attack has caused latent tensions to boil over. "There is embedded discrimination. And failure to recognize the problem, and failure to rectify the growing inter-communal violence."
A police state that has granted itself 30 years' worth of emergency powers in the name of quelling terrorism, Egypt suggests that foreign al-Qaeda operatives somehow slipped past its security dragnet. Egyptian agents have stepped up surveillance of airports and ports, and said the suicide bomber's severed head might help identify him.
Tens of thousands of Copts have come to Canada, many after first arriving as refugees. Anonymous threats made on the Internet last year named prominent Canadian Copts as suitable targets - claiming that "dogs in the diaspora" were intent on defaming Islam.
The RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service have been conducting interviews to better ground themselves on the possibility of attacks on Copts, but have not circulated generalized warnings.
Canada's top national-security police officer said only that "vigilance is key" for communities who fear terrorism, as he urged concerned Canadians with information to call the RCMP's terrorism-tip line.
"If the RCMP becomes aware that individuals are subject to a specific threat, we will advise them accordingly," Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud told The Globe in an e-mail. Specific security measures, he added, are "the responsibility of police of jurisdiction and would be based on specific threat-related information."
This state of affairs has left some priests frustrated. Father Saad, of the Canadian Coptic Centre in Mississauga, Ont., said police are telling him that "according to the intelligence of Canada, they are not expecting real threats." So he's also raising security issues with federal MPs and even Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who was in Toronto last weekend.
Police have not committed to showing up at the Church of the Virgin Mary and St. Athanasius in Mississauga for midnight mass. Father Saad said he's mulling private security as a "last resort," though he's uncomfortable with hiring guards. "This is not my job."
Across Canada, Coptic Christians will be on the lookout for anything amiss. "We're taking precautions. Better safe than sorry," said Sherif Mansour, an Ottawa-based spokesman for the Canadian Coptic Association. At churches, he said "the parking lots will be patrolled."
Some congregations are contacting private security for advice, Mr. Mansour said, but he added he could not speak to the security plans of specific churches.