Egyptian security forces on Thursday tightened their grip around churches nationwide as Coptic Christians prepared to mark Christmas after a New Year's Day church bombing killed 23 people in Alexandria.
AFP reported that an Egyptian police source said a primitive explosive device was found in a church in the southern governorates of Minya.
Al Arabiya correspondent in Egypt, meanwhile, said that the Egyptian police "completely" denied the reports.
According to AFP, the device consisted of fire crackers, nails and bolts stuffed into a powdered milk can, but had no detonator. It was found at the bottom of a staircase inside the church.
Security officials said at least 70,000 officers and conscripts were deployed out across the country to secure churches as Copts attend Christmas Eve mass.
Drivers were banned from parking their cars in front of churches, which would be tightly monitored by explosive detection teams and police officers, the official said.
Armored cars would also be stationed next to churches for Christmas Day, which falls on Jan. 7 under the Coptic calendar.
Some Muslims, he said, would also show up at churches to act as human shields in a show of solidarity with Egypt's beleaguered Christian community, which accounts for 10 percent of the country's 80-million people.
The official al-Ahram newspaper reported security was also tightened around tourist resorts.
A Coptic official in Alexandria said churches had cancelled traditional celebrations, such as receiving holiday well-wishers.
"It is inappropriate to receive well-wishers at a time like this. There is a state of deep sadness and the matter will be restricted to the service only," said Kamil Siddiq Sawiris, a member of the church's lay council of prominent Copts.
No-one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which came after an al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq threatened Egypt's Copts after saying it carried out a deadly October assault on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad.
The group, the Islamic State of Iraq, said it would attack Copts if their church failed to release two women the group claimed were being held against their will after converting to Islam.
Several weeks before the attack, a website linked to al-Qaeda published a list of Coptic churches it said should be attacked in Europe and Egypt, including the one targeted on Jan. 1.
It urged "every Muslim who cares about the honor of his sisters to bomb these churches during Christmas celebrations, when they will be most crowded."
Protests and riots
The bombing sparked days of protests and riots around the country that injured dozens of policemen and protesters.
Egypt, the most populous Arab country, witnessed resurgence in attacks by Islamist militants in the past decade after the government battled an onslaught in the 1990s that included an attempt abroad to kill the president.
President Hosni Mubarak has vowed to find those responsible for the New Year's Day bombing which he said targeted all Egyptians, regardless of their faith, and blamed "foreign hands."
State television has featured Christian-themed programming in the run up to Orthodox Christmas and some Egyptian Muslims rushed to express solidarity after the Alexandria attack.
One Muslim made a page on Facebook entitled "Being together in Christmas Eve ... Either we LIVE together or DIE together".
"By God's will I shall go to church tonight," said Ishac Helmy, who sells plastic slippers. "It's true that I'm afraid, but Jesus told us, 'Fear not for I am with you all the days,' and that gives me courage."
Last year began with a massacre of six Copts and a Muslim security guard after a Coptic Christmas Eve mass and ended on a tense note after two Coptic protesters died in clashes in a protest over a Cairo church permit.
Christians are "tested"
Pope Benedict XVI, meanwhile, said Christian communities were being "tested".
"I send my heartfelt greetings and best wishes to our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Churches who will celebrate Christmas tomorrow," the pope said in his weekly address to thousands of pilgrims in Saint Peter's Square.
"May the goodness of God... strengthen the faith, hope and charity of everyone and give comfort to the communities that are being tested," he said.
The pope added that Christians should set an example and "shine like sons of light to attract everyone to the beauty of the kingdom of God."
Italy has stepped up security measures to defend the few thousand Coptic Christians who live in the country, Italian newspapers reported.
Meanwhile Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops' conference, called on Europe to speak out against rising anti-Christian violence.
"We are astonished by such violence and religious intolerance... The international community, starting with Europe, should speak with a strong and clear voice for the defense of religious freedom," he said in a sermon.
(Compiled by Abeer Tayel)