Bombs tore through two Egyptian churches in different cities as worshippers were marking Palm Sunday, killing at least 37 people and wounding around 100 in an assault claimed by the Islamic State group.
The attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta 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. It comes just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit the Arab world’s most populous country.
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 people and wounding 35 just after Pope Tawadros II finished services. His aides later told local media that he had escaped unharmed.
IS claimed the attacks via its Aamaq news agency, after having recently warned that it would step up attacks on Egypt’s Christians.
CBC TV showed footage from inside the Mar Girgis church, where a large number of people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers. Regional Deputy Health Minister Mohammed Sharshar confirmed the toll.
Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar — the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam — likewise condemned the attack, calling it a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.”
The attack adds to fears that Islamic extremists who have long been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula may shift their focus to civilians.
An Islamic State affiliate claimed a suicide bombing at a Cairo church in December that killed around 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the restive northern Sinai that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country.
The group recently released a video vowing to step up attacks against Christians, who it describes as “infidels” empowering the West against Muslims.
A militant group called Liwa al-Thawra claimed responsibility for an April 1 bomb attack targeting a police training center in Tanta, which wounded 16 people. The group, believed to be linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, has mainly targeted security forces and distanced itself from attacks on Christians.
Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of an elected Islamist president.
The Sinai-based IS 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.
Egypt’s Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East, accounting for around 10 percent of Egypt’s 92 million people and have long complained of discrimination.
The Copts were largely supportive of the military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, a senior Brotherhood figure, and incurred the wrath of many Islamists, who attacked churches and other Christian institutions after his ouster.
Pope Francis on Sunday decried a deadly attack on a Coptic church in Egypt during Palm Sunday celebrations, just weeks before his planned visit to Cairo.
The pontiff expressed his “deep condolences” to the Coptic patriarch, Tawadros II, calling him “my brother,” to the Coptic church and “all of the dear Egyptian nation,” and said he was praying for the dead and injured in the attack that occurred just hours earlier as Francis himself was marking Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square.
The pontiff 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 church attack were handed to him on a piece of paper after he remembered the victims of the Stockholm attack Friday night.
The Palm Sunday celebrations in St. Peter’s Square were held under tight security, with streets surrounding St. Peter’s Square blocked to traffic and security search of the faithful entering the square.
The pope and cardinals in red robes led a solemn process clutching elaborately braided palm fronds as they walked through the throngs, followed by the papal blessing of palm fronds and olive branches.
The processions recalls the bittersweet nature of Holy Week, with the faithful clutching simple palm fronds and olive branches to commemorate Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem only to be followed later by his death on a wooden cross.
In his homily, the pope remembered the suffering in the world today, citing those who “suffer from slave labor, from family tragedies, from diseases … They suffer from wars and terrorism, from interests that are armed and ready to strike.”
After his traditional Sunday blessing, the pope circled the square in the pope mobile to greet the faithful.