At least 37 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in two Palm Sunday bombings at Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, authorities say.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks on worshipers in Alexandria and Tanta as the Christian Holy Week begins, the Associated Press reports.
The first bombing occurred at Saint George Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, where at least 25 people were killed and more than 70 wounded, officials said. The second blast killed 11 people and wounded at least 35 others at Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, just after Pope Tawadros II finished services, the Associated Press reports.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi condemned the attacks, calling them an “outrageous” action that “targets both the Copts and Muslims of the homeland.” He said he investigaors would “hunt down the perpetrators and “take all measures to offer the necessary care for the wounded.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Bombings Came After ISIS Threatened It Would Step Up Attacks on Christians in Egypt in the Lead Up to Easter
The bombings at two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday, the day of observation that begins Holy Week, came after ISIS claimed it would be stepping up attacks on Christians in Egypt during the lead up to Easter, the Associated Press reports. The so-called Islamic State released a video through its Aamaq news agency threatening the attacks.
ISIS said Sunday on its Aamaq news agency that the deadly bombings were carried out by a Sinai Peninsula-based affiliate. The same group claimed responsibility for a December 2016 suicide bombing at a church in Cairo that killed 30 people and killings of Christians intended to drive them out of the northern Sinai area, the Associated Press reports.
The terror group said Egyptian Christians are “infidels” who are empowering the West against Muslims, Fox News reports.
“Of course we feel targeted, there was a bomb here about a week ago but it was dismantled. There’s no security,” an unidentified Christian woman told Reuters at the scene of the bombing in Tanta. The news agency says the woman was referencing an attack earlier this month near a police training center that killed a police officer and wounded 15 people.
2. The Bomb at Saint George Church in Tanta Was Placed Under a Seat in the Main Prayer Hall
The blast at Saint George Church in Tanta killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 70 others, CNN reports. Authorities said an explosive device was planted under a seat in the main prayer hall of the church, officials said.
Video from the church showed the blast. Worshipers can be seen singing hymns in the video, which you can watch below, before an explosion is heard and the feed goes blank. Screams can then be heard:
“Everything is destroyed inside the church and blood can be seen on marble pillars,” a witness, Peter Kamel, told CNN.
Susan Mikhail, whose apartment has a balcony view of the church, told the Associated Press, “Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes.” Mikhail said more seriously wounded were carried out and taken away in ambulances.
“There was blood all over the floor and body parts scattered,” a woman told Reuters.
“There was a huge explosion in the hall. Fire and smoke filled the room and the injuries were extremely severe,” witness Vivian Fareeg told Reuters.
3. A Suicide Bomber Killed At Least 11 People in the Attack Outside Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria
The attack in Alexandria, which killed at least 11 people, was a suicide bombing, NBC News reports. It occurred outside the Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the coastal city, which is historically the seat of Christianity in Egypt.
Pope Tawadros II had just finished services at the cathedral, but was not injured, NBC News reports. It is not clear if he was inside the church when the blast occurred or if he had already left the area.
Egypt’s Interior Minister said police guarding Saint Mark’s stopped the ISIS terrorist wearing an explosive belt from entering the church and he detonated the explosive outside the building, CNN reports.
Two police officers, including the officer who stopped the bomber, and other police staff were among the victims killed outside the cathedral, authorities said. Blood stains could be seen on the ground near the church and witnesses told CNN some worshipers were yelling at police for “not protecting” them.
“Every now and then, I see a person crying — I think they are Christian — and they keep saying: ‘have you seen my family? Have you seen my family?'” Egyptian blogger Maged Butter told CNN.
4. Copts in Egypt Are Among the Oldest Christian Communities in the Middle East & Have Long Faced Discrimination & Attacks
Copts in Egypt are among the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East and have long been the target of discrimination and attacks, experts say. Those attacks have increased in recent years after Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled in 2011 and after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in 2013, CNN reports.
They make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 91 million people and base their theology on the teachings of the Apostle Saint Mark, who introduced Christianity to Egypt.
Last month, Amnesty International called on the Egyptian government to do more to protect Coptic Christians from a string of deadly attacks.
Amnesty International said Coptic churches and homes have been set on fire and members of the minority Christian group have been physically attacked and had their property looted.
“The government has failed to take action to protect Christians in North Sinai who have increasingly faced kidnapping and assassinations by armed groups over the past three years,” Amnesty International said. “The authorities have also failed to prosecute those responsible for sectarian attacks against Christians elsewhere in Egypt, resorting instead to state-sponsored reconciliation agreements which, at times, have involved the forced eviction of Christian families from their homes.”
Najia Bounaim, deputy director for campaigns at Amnesty’s office in Tunis, issued a statement calling for more government support:
This terrifying wave of attacks has seen Coptic Christians in North Sinai hunted down and murdered by armed groups. No one should face discrimination – let alone violent and deadly attacks – because of their religious beliefs. The Egyptian authorities have consistently failed to protect Coptic residents of North Sinai from a longstanding pattern of violent attacks, they must not let them down further now. The government has a clear duty to ensure safe access to housing, food, water and medical and other essential services to all those who have been forced to leave their homes due to violence and persecution. The government must also end the prevailing impunity for attacks against Christians elsewhere around the country and end its reliance on customary reconciliation deals which further fuel a cycle of violence against Christian communities. The Egyptian authorities must ensure that those who have fled are resettled in secure housing, have adequate access to basic necessities and are granted opportunities to pursue education and employment.
After Sunday’s attacks, Egyptian leaders said they would continue to fight terrorism.
“Terrorism hits Egypt again, this time on Palm Sunday,” Ahmed Abu Zeid, a spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign affairs, said on Twitter. “Another obnoxious but failed attempt against all Egyptians.”
Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the leading center of Sunni Islam, said in a statement he condemns the attacks and called them a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents,” Fox News reports.
Egyptian state-run news reported that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail will visit the Tanta bombing site on Sunday, according to Reuters. Al-Sisi has called for an emergency national defense council meeting.
“The attack will not undermine the resolve and true will of the Egyptian people to counter the forces of evil, but will only harden their determination to move forward on their trajectory to realize security, stability and comprehensive development,” the Egyptian president said in a statement.
5. The Attack Comes After Egyptian President al-Sisi Visited the U.S. & Talked With President Trump About ISIS
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited President Donald Trump in Washington last week and discussed terrorism and ISIS, CNN reports. Trump expressed support for Al-Sisi and the Egyptian government during that White House meeting.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted, “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.”
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement on Twitter saying it “expresses its absolute condemnation of the terrorist attack against St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. We condemn this hateful act targeting worshippers are they celebrated one of the most sacred days in Christianity. We grieve with all Egyptians as we express our heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families and we hope for a speedy recovery for those injured in the attack. Again, the United States stands firmly with the Egyptian government and people to defeat terrorism.”
The attacks also came ahead of Pope Francis’ planned visit to Cairo, where he will meet with the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church and other religious leaders. He issued a statement Sunday after he celebrated Palm Sunday mass in St. Peter’s Square.
“To my dear brother his Holiness Pope Tawadros II, to the Coptic church and to all of the dear country Egypt, I express my deep condolences, I prayed for the dead and the wounded, I am close to the families and to the entire community,” Pope Francis said in a statement. “God convert the hearts of the people who spread terror, violence and dead, and also the heart of who produces and traffic weapons.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the attacks and offered condolences, CNN reports.
Israel and the Islamic Hamas also condemned the bombings, according to the Associated Press.
French President Francois Hollande said in a statement, “One more time, Egypt is hit by terrorists who want to destroy its unity and its diversity.”
Hollande said France, “mobilizes all its forces in association with the Egyptian authorities in the fight against terrorism.”