TANTA, Egypt — Bombs rocked churches packed with worshipers in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria on Sunday, killing at least 36 and injuring scores more. The assaults were the latest in a spate of attacks targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority and come ahead of a scheduled visit by Pope Francis to Egypt.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both bombings through the Amaq News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamist militant group. Egypt’s Christian minority, who make roughly 10 percent of the population, have increasingly been targeted by Islamist extremists.
The first bomb in Tanta, 80 miles north of the capital, Cairo, exploded around 9.30 a.m., during a Palm Sunday service at St. George’s Church. The device, police said, was planted in the pews of the church.
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“I ran to the church to find my lifelong friend shattered to pieces by the bomb,” said Mona Faiez, 61, who lives near the church and came running after she heard the blast. Her friend, Soliman Shaker, was a church deacon.
“What kind of human could do this and why?”
Less than three hours later, a second blast erupted near Saint Mark’s Church in the northern city of Alexandria. The head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, was presiding over the Palm Sunday Mass at the church, and his fate remained unknown.
The Health Ministry says 36 people have been killed in the attacks, 25 in Tanta and 11 in Alexandria, but the death toll is widely expected to rise.
Both churches were packed for Palm Sunday services. After the attack in Tanta, photos appeared on social media, showing bloodstained walls and shattered wooden pews. Many of the dead were believed to be children, according to initial local media reports.
On Sunday, Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, denounced the bombings and expressed “his deep condolences” to Tawadros II and “all of the dear Egyptian nation.”
In remarks made after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, the pope 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.”
In December, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bombing of Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral complex that killed at least 25 people and wounded 49. It was the deadliest attack on the community in years, and marked a shift in the Islamic State’s strategy to make Christians a primary target in their campaign against the government.
More recently, hundreds of Christians fled Egypt’s volatile Sinai Peninsula after militants aligned with the Islamic State affiliate there killed several Christians, attacking in their homes or in drive-by shootings. In a video, the Sinai-based affiliate warned that it would escalate attacks against the nation’s Christians.
The Catholic Archbishop of Egypt, Bishop Emmanuel, told journalists at a news conference on Friday that Francis’s visit was meant to send a message that Egypt was safe.
Francis is scheduled to meet Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and leaders of the Catholic diocese in the country. And in an effort to improve relations between Muslims and Christians, the pope is also expected to meet with grand imam of Al Azhar, a centuries old mosque and university, widely respected by Sunni Muslims.
On Sunday, residents in Tanta living near the church wondered how someone was able to get a bomb into the service. Concerned about more attacks on Christians, local authorities appeared to have taken no chances on this holy day. Police officers present, and security appeared tight.
“It is beyond my comprehension how they could leave such a bomb inside the church,” said Laurice Mikhaiel, 60, who lives in front of the church. “We churchgoers get inspected as we come in and out. There is always security present.”
For Faiez, that only raised more questions.
“The head of the security here told me he had 7 policemen standing here to protect the church,” said Faiez. “What exactly were they doing? How futile!”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Heba Mahfouz, Sudarsan Raghavan