Bombs exploded at two Coptic churches in different cities in northern Egypt as worshipers were celebrating Palm Sunday, killing at least 43 people and wounding about 100 in an assault claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The blasts came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit the Arab world’s most populous country, which has been beset by extremist violence against its minority Christians.
In the first attack, a bomb went off inside St. George’s Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78, officials said. A few hours later, a suicide bomber rushed toward St. Mark’s Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, killing at least 16 people and wounding 41, the Interior Ministry said.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi declared a state of emergency for three months after the blasts, and accused countries he didn’t name of fueling instability in Egypt, saying that “Egyptians have foiled plots and efforts by countries and fascist, terrorist organizations that tried to control Egypt.” The army chief-turned-president hasn’t detailed the legal measures needed to declare the state of emergency but according to the Egyptian constitution, the parliament majority must vote in favor of the state of emergency.
CCTV images broadcast on Egyptian channels showed a man in a blue pullover approach the main gate to St. Mark’s but being turned away and directed toward a metal detector. The man then passes a female police officer chatting to another woman, and enters a metal detector before an explosion engulfs the area.
Pope Tawadros II had held Palm Sunday services at the cathedral, but his aides said he had escaped unharmed. The timing of the attack raised the question of whether the bomber had sought to assassinate the pope, leader of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
ISIS claimed the attacks via its Amaq news agency, after having recently warned that it would step up violence against Egypt’s Christians.
“So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt,” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday, adding that he is confident that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will “handle” the situation properly.
So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns. I have great...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 9, 2017
So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns. I have great...
...confidence that President Al Sisi will handle situation properly.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 9, 2017
...confidence that President Al Sisi will handle situation properly.
CBC TV showed footage from inside the church in Tanta, where people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.
“After the explosion, everything became dark from the smoke,” said Edmond Edward, attending services with his brother, Emil, who was wounded and leaned on him for support at a nearby hospital, his head covered in bandages. “There was a clear lapse in security, which must be tightened from now on to save lives,” he said. He added that the blast appeared to be centered near the altar and that the priest leading the service, Father Daniel, was wounded. Susan Mikhail, whose apartment balcony across the street has a clear view of the church and its front yard, said the explosion violently shook her building. “Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes,” she told The Associated Press. Later, the more seriously wounded were carried out by other survivors and taken to hospitals in private cars, she said.
Hundreds of residents gathered in the area, and church members blocked people -- including journalists -- from entering the church as police cordoned off the area. Regional police chief Brig. Gen. Hossam Elddin Khalifa was fired over the incident, with Maj. Gen. Tarek Hassouna replacing him, state-run newspaper al-Ahram reported.
Pope Francis, marking Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square, decried the bombings, expressing “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation.”
The pontiff asked God “to convert the hearts of those who spread terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those who make, and traffic in, weapons.”
After that first attack, Egypt’s Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the state will resume efforts to eradicate terror, Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported.
“Terrorism hits Egypt again, this time on Palm Sunday,” Ahmed Abu Zeid, spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted. “Another obnoxious but failed attempt against all Egyptians.”
As we grieve the tragic & heartbreaking loss of Egyptian lives, it is still a failed attempt against our unity. #united_on_PalmSunday— Egypt MFA Spokesman (@MfaEgypt) April 9, 2017
As we grieve the tragic & heartbreaking loss of Egyptian lives, it is still a failed attempt against our unity. #united_on_PalmSunday
Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar -- the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam -- condemned the attacks, calling them a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.” Both Israel and the Islamic Hamas movement ruling neighboring Gaza also condemned the bombings.
Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of an elected Islamist president. Egypt’s Christian minority, which makes up around 10 percent of the population, has been repeatedly targeted by Islamic extremists.
In December, a local Islamic State affiliate claimed a suicide bombing at a church in Cairo that killed around 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the restive Sinai Peninsula that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country. The group has threatened further attacks.
A militant group called Liwa al-Thawra claimed responsibility for an April 1 bomb attack targeting a police training center in Tanta, which wounded 16 people. The group, believed to be linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, has mainly targeted security forces and distanced itself from attacks on Christians.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo condemned the two church bombings.
We express our deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims, and we wish the injured a speedy recovery. (4/5)— US Embassy Cairo (@USEmbassyCairo) April 9, 2017
We express our deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims, and we wish the injured a speedy recovery. (4/5)
“The United States stands firmly with the Egyptian government and people to defeat terrorism,” it said.
French President Francois Hollande expressed solidarity with Egypt. In a written statement, Hollande said “one more time, Egypt is hit by terrorists who want to destroy its unity and its diversity.” He said France “mobilizes all its forces in association with the Egyptian authorities in the fight against terrorism,” and offers condolences to the families of the victims.
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