ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT - Grieving Christian women wept and urged God to "avenge" their dead as they gathered Sunday at a bloodied church in northern Egypt where 21 people were killed in a New Year Day's bombing.
"God avenge our martyrs," several women pleaded out loud.
"God burn their hearts," they said in reference to those who carried out Saturday's bombing at Al-Qiddissin church in Alexandria where 21 people were killed and 79 wounded when an apparent suicide bomber blew himself up.
A painting of Jesus Christ stained with blood was placed against the gate of the church and a bloodied white cloth which had been used to carry the dead from Saturday's attack was strung on the iron railings.
Huge numbers of policemen in riot gear were deployed around the church and a mosque across the street since Saturday to contain the anger of Christians.
On Saturday, police fired tear gas at protesters as hundreds of Christian youths pelted them with stones and chanted slogans hostile to the government, accusing authorities of failing to protect the Copts.
Egypt says a suicide bomber probably detonated his payload at the church in Sidi Bechr as hundreds of faithful prepared to leave after attending the New Year's Eve mass.
President Hosni Mubarak said the attack bore the hallmark of "foreign hands," and the interior ministry also blamed "foreign elements" - euphemisms which point to Islamist militants such as Al-Qaeda loyalists.
Mubarak pledged in televised remarks on Saturday that he will "cut off the head of the snake, confront terrorism and defeat it" and urged Christians and Muslims to unite in the face of a common enemy.
Women clad in black knelt to pray or sat on church benches in a daze, tears streaming down their faces.
Many vented their anger out loud against the "fanatics" who targeted the beleaguered Coptic community - up to 10 percent of Egypt's 80-million population.
Although the protesters were no longer on the streets, the tension was palpable inside the church when mourners complained that Copts were being discriminated against and marginalised in Muslim-dominated Egypt.
"In this country we can't even pray in the house of God," said 32-year-old engineer Sameh Girgis.
"The anti-Coptic feeling has been fuelled by mosque leaders. That is the root of our problem," said 37-year-old housewife Fifi Abdel Malak.
The head of Al-Qiddissin (The Saints) church, Bishop Monsignor Maqqar, said that the Coptic church has appealed for patience and calm.
The church told the community "that Christ has asked us to be patient," the cleric told AFP.
But he insisted that the authorities have a central role to play in appeasing growing Coptic anger. The government must "guarantee our right to live, to pray and to get work".
"Fanaticism and Muslim extremism is the root of the problem," the bishop said.
"No religion can sanction murders," he added.
Muslim leaders led by the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based highest authority of Sunni Islam, have condemned Saturday's attack.
President Mubarak said the killings showed that "all of Egypt is a target."
"Blind terrorism does not differentiate between Copts and Muslims."
No one claimed responsibility for the bombing but Al-Qaeda has called for punishment of Egypt's Copts over claims that two priests' wives they say had converted to Islam were being held by the Church against their will.
The Church has denied that Camilia Shehata and Wafa Constantine were being held forcibly in Coptic monasteries after allegedly converting to Islam - saying both claims were lies.
On Friday, hours before the attack, protesters demonstrated outside a mosque in central Alexandria calling for a boycott of the Copts unless they "free" the two women.