Three knife-wielding Muslims attacked worshipers at Coptic churches in Egypt's second city of Alexandria on Friday, killing one and wounding at least 12, police and medical sources said.
The assailants, each armed with two knives, mounted almost simultaneous attacks on churchgoers in three separate neighborhoods and were later arrested, a police official said on condition of anonymity.
"The attacker stormed the church armed with a knife and shouted 'There is no God but Allah' and 'Allah is the greatest' before stabbing the worshipers," one of the Mar Girgis church employees said.
"We closed the doors of the church as soon as he started attacking the worshipers and we fought back with sticks but he tried to flee through one of the church's underground passages," said the witness, who asked to be named only as Ibrahim.
An hour after the incident, a mass was being held to appease the neighborhood's shocked Coptic worshipers. Security forces sealed off the areas where the attacks took place and set up checkpoints across the Mediterranean city.
The simultaneous attacks on Egypt's minority Coptic Christian community marred the run-up to the Orthodox Easter celebrations starting in a week's time and were the worst outbreak of sectarian violence in Egypt in six months.
Friday's victim, Noshi Atta Girgis, died of his wounds in hospital, a medical source said. He was among at least three people attacked at the Quidissin church east of Alexandria.
The other assault took place at the Adra church in the eastern suburb of Abu Kir. At least three people were said to have sustained serious injuries.
In front of the Mar Girgis church, a distressed woman called for the attacks to be avenged.
"They will see. Do they think we're cowards? They will see that we have the means to defend ourselves," she shouted, as several other worshipers were in a state of hysteria.
"We cannot enter their mosques and kill them, yet they can come to our churches and kill us without any problem. Where are the police and the government? Do they think our blood is cheaper than theirs?" cried another woman, Nadia Lofti. "The people who do this want us all to convert to Islam. We are a minority and the government should give us more protection," she added.
Egyptian Copts in the overwhelmingly Muslim country typically attend weekly mass on Friday, which is also the Muslim holy day and marks the beginning of the weekend. They make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's population of 73 million and complain of discrimination by the regime.
Coptic faithful, religious leaders and intellectuals expressed fear of further harassment following the spectacular surge of the country's leading Islamist opposition party in November-December parliamentary elections.
The deadliest recent clashes occurred in October 2005 when Muslim protestors attacked a church in Alexandria that they accused of having hosted a play that they deemed offensive to Islam and killed three people. A 19-year-old Muslim who stabbed a nun during the rioting was sentenced to three years in jail in February.
A string of lesser incidents have been reported in different parts of the country in recent months, fueling fears of growing sectarian strife.
In January, a Coptic Christian was badly wounded when Muslims tried to torch a house that Copts were using as a church without approval from the authorities. He later died of his wounds.