ISIL church bombings kill at least 47 in Egypt on Palm Sunday

Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, was leading a Palm Sunday service at one of the two churches hit by blasts. Aides said he was unhurt.

CAIRO // Bombings claimed by ISIL killed at least 47 people and injured scores at two churches in northern Egypt on Sunday, including one at which the head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church was leading a service.

Officials said a suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt outside St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria after being prevented from entering by police. Pope Tawadros II was leading a Palm Sunday service at the church when the blast went off, killing at least 18 people including three police officers, and injuring about 60 others. Aides said the pope was unhurt.

The bombing came hours after a blast that left at least 29 people dead and injured 71 inside the Mar Girgis Church in the city of Tanta.

“The explosion took place in the front rows, near the altar, during the mass,” said General Tarek Atiya, the deputy to Egypt’s interior minister.

“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.

ISIL said its “squads” carried out both attacks, in a statement posted on social media accounts by its Amaq propaganda agency. The extremist group’s Egyptian affiliate admitted carrying out a suicide bombing that killed about 30 people at a church in Cairo in December and had warned the country’s Christian minority of more such attacks.

The Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi said he would declare a three-month state of emergency and ordered military deployments to protect “vital and important infrastructure” in all provinces after yesterday’s attacks.

The bombings came at the start of the Holy Week leading up to Easter and weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit Egypt on April 28-29.

Speaking before the second bombing, Pope Francis condemned the attack in Tanta and expressed his “deepest condolences” to all Egyptians and to Pope Tawadros.

“I pray for the dead and the victims. May the Lord convert the hearts of people who sow terror, violence and death and even the hearts of those who produce and traffic in weapons,” Pope Francis said at the end of his Palm Sunday Mass in St Peter’s Square.

The UAE strongly condemned the attack and offered condolences for the victims.

Egypt’s Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the population, have been targeted repeatedly by militant extremists. A string of killings by ISIL in the restive Sinai Peninsula has forced hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas.

Tanta, about 120 kilometres north of Cairo, was the scene of bombing on April 1 that wounded 16 people at a police training centre. The attack was claimed by Liwa Al Thawra, a militant group believed to be linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that has mainly targeted security forces and distanced itself from attacks on Christians.

Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of extremist militancy since the military removed Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood from the presidency in 2013.

Egypt’s Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since ISIL spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities. In 2015, ISIL militants killed 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya.

Copts also face regular attacks by Muslim neighbours, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or the construction of church.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse and Reuters