(AP) Bombs exploded at two Coptic churches in different cities in northern Egypt as worshippers were celebrating Palm Sunday, killing at least 43 people and wounding about 100 in an assault claimed by the Islamic State group.
The blasts came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due April 28-29 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.
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.
IS claimed the attacks via its Aamaq news agency, after having recently warned that it would step up violence against Egypt’s Christians.
CBC TV showed footage from inside the church in Tanta, where people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with paper.
“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 centred 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 Brigadier General Hossam Elddin Khalifa was fired over the incident, with Major General 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 condolence to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation”.
President Donald Trump tweeted that he was “so sad to hear of the terrorist attack” against the US ally but added that he has “great confidence” that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, “will handle the situation properly”. The two leaders met at the White House on April 3.
Both Israel and the Islamic Hamas movement ruling neighbouring Gaza condemned the bombings as well.
The bombings added to fears that Islamic extremists who have long been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula are shifting their focus to civilians.
Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of an elected Islamist president.
The Sinai-based IS affiliate has mainly attacked police and soldiers, but has also claimed bombings that killed civilians, including the downing of a Russian passenger jetliner in the Sinai in 2015, which killed all 224 people aboard and devastated Egypt’s tourism industry.
Egypt’s Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. They have long complained of discrimination and that the Government does not do enough to protect them.