The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for bombing two Egyptian churches as worshippers gathered to mark Palm Sunday, killing at least 43 people in the deadliest attacks on the Coptic Christian minority in recent memory.
The attacks followed a Cairo church bombing in December and came weeks before a planned visit by Catholic Pope Francis intended to show support for Egypt’s Christian minority.
The first bombing struck the Mar Girgis church in the city of Tanta north of Cairo, killing 27 people, the health ministry said.
“I just felt fire grabbing my face. I pushed my brother who was sitting next to me and then I heard people saying: ‘explosion’,” a wounded witness in hospital told state television.
Emergency services had scrambled to the scene when another blast rocked Saint Mark’s church in Alexandria where Coptic Pope Tawadros II had been leading a Palm Sunday service.
Sixteen people including three police officers were killed in that attack, which the interior ministry said was caused by a suicide bomber who blew himself up when police prevented him from entering the church.
The ministry said Tawadros was unharmed, and a church official said he had left before the bombing.
The private CBC Extra channel aired footage of the Alexandria blast, with CCTV showing what appeared to be the entrance of the church engulfed in a ball of flame and flying concrete moments after a security guard turned away a man.
At least 78 people were wounded in Tanta and 40 in Alexandria, the health ministry said.
Officials denounced the violence as an attempt to sow divisions in Egypt, and Francis sent his “deep condolences” to Tawadros.
IS claimed its “squads” carried out both attacks, in a statement by its self-styled Amaq news agency published on social media.
There were bloodstains on the floor of the church in Tanta, next to shredded wooden benches.
State television reported that the interior minister sacked the provincial head of security and replaced him after the attack.
On March 29, the Mar Girgis church’s Facebook page said a “suspicious” device had been found outside the building that security services removed.
“I heard the blast and came running. I found people torn up… some people, only half of their bodies remained,” said Nabil Nader, who lives in front of the Tanta church.
Worshippers had been celebrating Palm Sunday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, marking Jesus’s triumphant entrance to Jerusalem.
– Pope prays for victims –
Francis, who is due to visit Cairo on April 28-29, offered prayers for the victims.
“Let us pray for the victims of the attack unfortunately carried out today,” he said in an Angelus prayer.
“May the Lord convert the heart of those who sow terror, violence and death and also the heart of those who make weapons and trade in them.”
Copts, who make up about one tenth of Egypt’s population of more than 92 million and who celebrate Easter next weekend, have been targeted by several attacks in recent months.
Jihadists and Islamists accuse Copts of supporting the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, which ushered in a deadly crackdown on his supporters.
In December, a suicide bombing claimed by IS killed 29 worshippers in Cairo.
The group later released a video threatening Egypt’s Christians with more attacks.
The bombing of the church within a compound that also holds the seat of the Coptic papacy was the deadliest attack against the minority in recent memory.
A spate of jihadist-linked attacks in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, including the murder of a Copt in the city of El Arish whose house was also burned, led some Coptic families to flee their homes.
About 250 Christians took refuge in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya after IS released a video in February calling for attacks on the minority.
Reacting before Sunday’s second bombing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid called the Tanta attack “a failed attempt against our unity”.
“Terrorism hits Egypt again, this time on Palm Sunday,” he tweeted.
– String of attacks –
Prime Minister Sherif Ismail also condemned the attack, stressing Egypt’s determination to “eliminate terrorism”.
The Cairo-based Al-Azhar, an influential Sunni Muslim authority, said it aimed to “destabilise security and… the unity of Egyptians”.
Egypt’s Copts have endured successive attacks since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013.
More than 40 churches were attacked nationwide in the two weeks after the deadly dispersal by security forces of two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo on August 14 that year, Human Rights Watch said.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who as then army chief helped remove Morsi, has defended his security forces and accused jihadists of attacking Copts in order to divide the country.
In October 2011, almost 30 people — mostly Coptic Christians — were killed after the army charged at a protest outside the state television building in Cairo to denounce the torching of a church in southern Egypt.
A few months earlier, the unclaimed New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic church killed more than 20 people in Egypt’s second city Alexandria.