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Attacks on 2 Christian churches in Egypt kill 43; Islamic State claims responsibility

By Makarios Nassar, Omar Medhat and Molly Hennessy-Fiske • Apr 10, 2017 at 2:51 AM

CAIRO — Islamic State claimed responsibility for bombing Egyptian Coptic Christian churches in two cities Sunday, killing at least 43 people and injuring more than 100.

The claim was published by the militant group’s Amaq news agency after the attacks, which targeted large crowds gathered for Palm Sunday.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared a three-month state of emergency in the country, where there has already been a major crackdown on dissent and political expression.

The second explosion occurred Sunday afternoon at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, where the Coptic Pope Tawadros II had earlier celebrated Palm Sunday. It killed 16 people and wounded at least 47 others, according to Sharif Wadih, an aide to the country’s health minister.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry said the blast was caused by a suicide bomber who tried to storm the entrance before being stopped by police. The ministry said three police were among those killed.

Earlier, a bomb at Saint George’s Church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta killed 27 people and wounded 78, Wadih said.

“I was inside the church at that time and suddenly, the church was bombed,” said Makaram Kamal Rateb, describing the attack in Tanta. “There were bodies and blood everywhere.”

Rateb, who worships at the church, said there was no security to protect churchgoers from the attacker, who died in the bombing.

Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85 million, and are especially visible on Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, when they tote palms in the streets. They have repeatedly been targeted by Islamist extremists in recent years. Last week, local media reported another bomb was found at St. George’s church and defused.

The Coptic Church is the dominant Christian denomination in Egypt, where it is said to have been established in the first century by the Apostle Mark.

The bombings occurred weeks before a scheduled visit to Egypt by Pope Francis, raising questions about security for that trip.

Police were stationed at St. George’s church after the attack, emptying the building and clearing the scene to investigate as mourners stood outside, growing increasingly upset about what they viewed as lax security that allowed the attacks.

El-Sissi offered condolences to victims’ families, and promised to investigate and bring those responsible to justice.

“It will never affect the determination of Egyptians and their true willpower to oppose the forces of evil. Rather, it will increase their determination to move past obstacles and achieve security,” he said of the attacks.

President Donald Trump responded to the attacks on Twitter, writing: “So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns. I have great confidence that President (el-Sissi) will handle the situation properly.”

After the attacks, the Tanta area security chief Hossam Din Khalifa was relieved of duty, according to state-owned Al Ahram news.

Witnesses posted photographs online showing victims being loaded into ambulances, civilians evacuating the wounded near stone pillars spattered with blood and bodies scattered among the pews. A nun stood beside police tape strung across blood-soaked pews, holding her face in her hands.

During his Palm Sunday address in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis expressed his “deep condolences” to “my brother” Tawadros II and to the Coptic church and “all of the dear Egyptian nation,” and said he was praying for the dead and injured.

The pope, whose authority does not extend to the Coptic Church, asked that God “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 has called for an end to what he terms a “genocide” against Christians in the Middle East, but has also said it’s wrong to equate Islam with violence. He was invited to Egypt later this month by Sisi to help mend ties with Muslims.

Grand Sheikh Ahmed Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al Azhar University, the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam, condemned the attack in Tanta, calling it a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.” Al Azhar has plans to host the pope during his visit.

Egypt has struggled to combat Islamic militancy since the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president in 2013.

An Islamic State affiliate based in the Sinai Peninsula claimed a suicide bombing at a chapel next to Saint Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo in December that killed 29 people and wounded 47, and vowed more attacks on Christians.

In February, a series of killings on the northern Sinai Peninsula caused hundreds of Christians to flee as militants threatened further attacks. While the Egyptian military has also been attacked in the area as it fights Islamic State, some human rights activists complained that el-Sissi had failed to protect the religious minority.

“Christian Egyptians are being targeted by radical groups in Egypt, like all Egyptians opposed to ISIS and the like—but Christians are targeted twice. As Egyptians, but also as Christians,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, referring to Islamic State by its acronym.

El-Sissi has tried to reach out to Coptic Christians, who have supported him in the past, attending services at St. Mark’s after the bombing there and promising to step up security in Cairo.

“The government is already involved in a widespread crackdown on radical groups. Those efforts are unlikely to see much change in tactics or strategies” after the latest attacks, Hellyer said.

“The police didn’t care about protecting the churches in Egypt,” said Hani Ezzat, who manages a government gas company and has a relative wounded in Tanta. “This is a very important day for Christians and Copts in Egypt. Thousands of Christians go to church to celebrate Palm Sunday. The police know that, and they didn’t take any measures to protect them. ISIS knows that, so they’re bombing more than one church.”

Others said they didn’t blame police, and that the attack was an affront to all Egyptians.

George Mansour said the attack claimed the life of his cousin, Raouf Mansour, who sold books in front of the church and was a deacon.

But George Mansoursaid he still felt safe.

“The people who bomb the churches like the cathedral last December and now, they want to destroy the whole country: Muslim, Christians, the economy,” and not just Coptic Christians, he said.

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©2017 Los Angeles Times

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