Isis claims assault on Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta
At least 37 people have been killed in two bomb attacks targeting two Egyptian churches packed with Palm Sunday worshippers claimed by Isis.
The first attack took place in the Saint George church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, north of Cairo, killing 26 and wounding more than 70.
Later, an explosion hit Saint Mark’s Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, killing at least 11 and wounding 35 just after Pope Tawadros II finished services.
His aides later told local media he had escaped unharmed.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said a suicide bomber tried to storm the entrance before being stopped in police. The ministry said three policemen were among those killed in the attack.
“A group that belongs to Islamic State carried out the two attacks on the churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria,” the group’s news agency Amaq said.
The group recently warned it would step up attacks on Egypt’s Christians.
It was the latest in a series of assaults on Egypt’s Christian minority, which makes up around 10 percent of the population and has been repeatedly targeted by Islamic extremists.
Video footage and images reportedly taken from inside the church in Tanta show a large number of people gathered around what appear to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.
Eyewitnesses to the first blast described a scene of carnage to Reuters.
“There was a huge explosion in the hall. Fire and smoke filled the room and the injuries were extremely severe. I saw the intestines of those injured and legs severed entirely from their bodies,” Vivian Fareeg said.
Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar — the leading centre of learning in Sunni Islam — condemned the attack, calling it a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents”.
Pope Francis decried the deadly attack, which took place just weeks before his planned visit to Cairo.
The pontiff expressed his ”deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation,” and said he was praying for the dead and wounded in the attack. Word of the bombing came as Francis himself was marking Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square.
He 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.”
The pope’s remarks on the attack were handed to him on a piece of paper as he marked Palm Sunday in St Peter’s Square.
Relatives and onlookers gather outside the church Mar Girgis after a bomb attack on Palm Sunday, the start of the Holy Week leading up to Easter, when the church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta was packed with worshippers
Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
A local Isis affiliate group claimed a suicide bombing at a church in Cairo in December that killed around 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the restive Sinai Peninsula that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country.
The Sinai-based Isis affiliate has mainly attacked police and soldiers, but has also claimed bombings that killed civilians, including the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai in 2015, which killed all 224 people on board and devastated Egypt’s tourism industry.