Coptic Christians marked a sombre Christmas on Friday, after a deadly New Year's Day church bombing in Egypt sparked riots that injured dozens of policemen and protesters.

Egypt has been under tight security since the attack in the northern city of Alexandria killed 21 people, and the measures were stepped up for Christmas Eve services held for Copts on Thursday. Under the Coptic calendar, Christmas Day falls on January 7.

Police were deployed around the Saints Church in Alexandria which was targeted in Saturday's attack. Officials said at least 70,000 officers and conscripts had been deployed across the country to secure churches as Copts, who account for 10 per cent of Egypt's 80-million population, attended Christmas Eve mass. Hundreds of worshippers gathered on Thursday at the Alexandria church under tight security. Maher (50), who arrived for the mass with his wife and two daughters, said : “Our sorrow is great, but we feel stronger because of the support of our Muslim compatriots.” Others converged on Saint Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, where the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenuda III, conducted the service, attended by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's two sons Alaa and Gamal.

Police have released a sketch of the suspected Alexandria suicide bomber, reconstructed from the remains of a severed head found on the roof of the church.

Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands have also stepped up security around Coptic churches.

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