LONDON Coptic Christians around the world are on alert for possible copycat attacks ahead of their Christmas on Friday after Islamist radicals hailed a deadly church bombing in Egypt apparently inspired by al Qaeda.
Coptic communities point to messages on websites maintained by Islamist extremists calling for attacks on Coptic churches in various countries and a surge in sectarian anti-Christian rhetoric in statements by al Qaeda offshoots in recent months.
The January 1 attack in Alexandria, which killed 23 people and aggravated already profound Christian-Muslim tensions in Egypt, could inspire militants elsewhere to carry out similar assaults on Copts or other Christian targets, security specialists said.
"I do see a greater risk to Coptic targets even if just from copycat attacks, e.g. arson, shooting and the like," said Anna Murison, senior global risk forecaster at Exclusive Analysis.
Safwat Zayaat, a military expert in Cairo, said the bombing showed that Qaeda-like groups "are everywhere, capable of carrying out .... missions that grab global attention."
Paul Salem, head of Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, saw an "obvious" risk that the bloodshed would deepen sectarian rifts in the region. But he suggested that the main danger of more violence was in Egypt itself due to multiple social, economic and political strains in that country.
"Big events like this raise tensions, put things in motion and things might get out of hand as they did in Iraq... That surely is the hope of people who did it," he told Reuters.
"The situation (in Egypt) in general is about to explode, let alone between the communities. So this (Muslim/Coptic tension) is one more fault line that's boiling with magma."
In France, home to some 45,000 Coptic Christians, police have beefed up security around 19 churches across the country ahead of the January 7 holiday and in light of online threats.
Extra measures include barriers to filter visitors, frequent patrols and floodlights for churches during late masses.
In Germany, the government said it had informed the head of the country's Coptic church, Bishop Anba Damian, of a risk of attack before Saturday's bombing in Egypt.
"TARGETS FOR ATTACKS"
"Coptic churches are the targets for new terror attacks (within Germany)," Damian told German radio.
In Britain, Coptic priest Shenouda A. Shenouda said the church was in contact with the police about security because two of the 20,000-strong community's churches in London had been mentioned as possible targets on Islamist websites.
In the Netherlands, anti-terror agency NCTb has urged police to keep an eye on Coptic churches in three Dutch cities after they were included in Internet threats.
Among the threats posted on radical websites is a November 1 message from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which accuses Copts in Egypt of detaining two women converts to Islam.
Experts say the issue of the two women converts may now be providing al Qaeda globally with an opportunity to pursue more sectarian ways of conducting its anti-Western campaign.
While al Qaeda has spoken of its actions as a war against a "Christian alliance" and "crusaders," it has not normally portrayed religion as the overriding pretext for its attacks, preferring to speak of Western control of Muslim governments.
However the issue of the converts has been cited in messages, albeit briefly, in the last three months by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, apparently as an example of Western oppression of Muslims.
Egyptian Islamist protesters have said the two women converts, both wives of priests, had converted to Islam and were being detained by the church. A priest has denied this and said they were in monasteries for their own safety.
Mathieu Guidere, a Geneva University linguist who studies Islamist web forums, said al Qaeda militants were targeting Copts, and Christians more generally, to spur the West to come explicitly to the aid of Christians in ways that would play into al Qaeda propaganda about a supposed Western war against Islam.