Egypt's Interior Ministry said the attack Wednesday just before midnight was suspected as retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town. The statement said witnesses have identified the lead attacker.
The attack took place in the town of Nag Hamadi in Qena province, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from the famous ancient ruins of Luxor. A local security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed that seven were dead and three seriously wounded.
Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hamadi Diocese told The Associated Press six male churchgoers and one security guard were killed. He said he had left St. John's church just minutes before the attack.
"A driving car swerved near me, so I took the back door. By the time I shook hands with someone at the gate, I heard the mayhem, lots of machine gun shots," he said in a telephone interview. He said he saw five bodies lying on the ground when he first looked at the site of the shooting, about 600 yards from where he was.
The bishop said he was concerned about violence on the eve of Coptic Christmas, which falls on Thursday, because of previous threats following the rape of the 12-year-old girl in November.
He got a message on his mobile phone saying: "It is your turn."
"I did nothing with it. My faithful were also receiving threats in the streets, some shouting at them: 'We will not let you have festivities,
Because of the threats, he said he ended his Christmas Mass one hour early.
He said Muslim residents of Nag Hamadi and neighboring villages rioted for five days in November and torched and damaged Christian properties in the area after the rape.
"For days, I had expected something to happen on Christmas day," he said. The bishop said police have now asked him to stay at home for fear of further violence.
Qena is one of Egypt's poorest and most conservative areas.
Christians, mostly Coptic, account for about 10 percent of Egypt's predominantly Muslim population. As Islamic conservatism gains ground, Christians have increasingly complained about discrimination by the Muslim majority.
Clashes between Muslims and Christians are not uncommon in southern Egypt and in recent years have begun seeping into the capital. An Amnesty International report said sectarian attacks on the Coptic Christian community, comprising between 6 million and 8 million people in Egypt, increased in the year 2008. Sporadic clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims left eight people dead.
Vendetta killing is also common among southern Egyptians, and is usually over land or family disputes.
The bishop said he had an idea of who the attackers were, calling them "Muslim radicals."
"It is all religious now. This is a religious war about how they can finish off the Christians in Egypt," he said.