By Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
CAIRO, EGYPT (ANS — April 9, 2017) — Two blasts targeting Coptic Christians in Egypt on Palm Sunday have killed at least 45 people, officials say, according to the BBC.
The BBC reports that an explosion at St George’s Coptic church in Tanta killed 29 people. Hours later, a blast outside St Mark’s Coptic church in Alexandria left 16 dead.
The BBC said so-called Islamic State (IS) claimed it was behind the explosions, the latest in a series of attacks targeting the Christian minority in the country.
Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi ordered military deployments across Egypt.
In a statement, he said the army would be sent to protect “vital and important infrastructure.” The government announced three days of mourning.
State media reported that inn Alexandria, Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, had been attending Mass inside the targeted church but was not hurt.
Four police officers, including one policewoman, were among those killed, the interior ministry said. The suicide bomber blew himself up after they stopped him from entering the church.
The BBC reported the first explosion in Tanta, 94km (58 miles) north of Cairo, took place near the altar of the church. It remains unclear if it was also caused by a suicide bomber.
“I saw pieces of body parts and broken seats. There was so much blood everywhere, some people had half of their bodies missing. The first three rows [inside the church] were destroyed,” Nabil Nader, an eyewitness, said.
The explosions injured at least 71 people in Tanta and 35 others in Alexandria, the health ministry said, according to the BBC report.
The BBC said the blasts appear to have been timed for maximum impact, as people gathered to mark Palm Sunday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, marking the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.
Egyptian security forces had been put on alert in anticipation of attacks.
The attacks come weeks before an expected visit by Pope Francis intended to show support for the country’s Christian minority. He condemned the explosions.
“I pray for the dead and the injured, and I am close in spirit to the family members [of the victims] and to the entire community,” the Pope said.
Pope Tawadros II told local TV that “sinful acts will not undermine the unity and coherence of the Egyptian people in the face of terrorism.”
In the UK, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Bishop Angaelos, condemned the “senseless and heartless brutality” of the attacks.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump said on Twitter that he had “great confidence” that President Sisi would handle the situation “properly.”
The BBC explained that violence against the religious minority has risen in recent years, especially since 2013, when the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi, who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, and launched a crackdown against Islamists.
Some Morsi supporters blamed Christians for supporting the overthrow.
In February, IS warned of more attacks against Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.
What is the Coptic Christian faith?
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian Church in Egypt. While most Copts live in Egypt, the Church has about a million members outside the country.
Copts believe that their Church dates back to around 50 AD, when the Apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt. Mark is regarded as the first Pope of Alexandria — the head of their church.
This makes it one of the earliest Christian groups outside the Holy Land.
The Church separated from other Christian denominations at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in a dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ.
The early Church suffered persecution under the Roman Empire, and there were intermittent persecutions after Egypt became a Muslim country. Many believe that continues to this day.
The Copts and Egypt: Analysis by Sebastian Usher, BBC Arab affairs editor
The Copts are one of the most ancient Christian communities and the largest still left in the Middle East. But they have long felt vulnerable and marginalized. This sense of precariousness has only increased in recent years, with the rise of violent jihadism in parts of Egypt.
The country’s political and Muslim religious leaders have tried to provide reassurance that they stand united with the Copts — and have portrayed the recent upsurge in attacks as an attempt by extremists to sow division.
But in recent months, Coptic families have been fleeing the northern Sinai after a series of murders and assaults.
Their trust in the state’s ability and willingness to protect them will now be even more deeply shaken — as bombs desecrate Palm Sunday, fulfilling a rash of recent threats by the Islamic State group to intensify their violence against Christians in Egypt.
Copts in Egypt: Recent developments
** December 2016: 25 people died when a bomb exploded at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo during a service. IS said it was behind the attack
** February 2016: A court sentenced three Christian teenagers to five years in prison for insulting Islam. They had appeared in a video, apparently mocking Muslim prayers, but claimed they had been mocking IS following a number of beheadings
** April 2013: Two people were killed outside St Mark’s cathedral in Cairo when people mourning the death of four Coptic Christians killed in religious violence clashed with local residents.
The Washington, D.C. – based International Christian Concern (ICC) www.persecution.org confirmed that at least 32 Christians celebrating Palm Sunday were killed in bombings at two Coptic churches in northern Egypt. Dozens more were injured in the blasts as well.
ICC said the first explosion occurred at 9:30 a.m. in St. George’s Church, located in the city of Tanta, 50 miles north of Cairo. According to multiple reports, an explosive device was planted under a seat in the church located in the main prayer hall, killing at least 21.
“The church was full of people because of the celebration of Palm Sunday,” Bishoy Nady, an eyewitness, told ICC. “I was sitting on the last bench of the church. During the middle of the mass, the bomb went off in the first benches of the church. It was a huge explosion. The church became dark and there were screams everywhere.”
“There were many dead bodies [and] body parts and injures,” Nady continued. “The blood splattered all over the church. At least 26 people were killed and more than 70 were injured in this church blast.”
ICC stated that hours after the bombing of St. George’s Church in Tanta, another explosion was reported in front of St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria, killing another 11. Pope Tawadros II, head of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, was reportedly leading mass at St. Mark’s Church when the bombing took place.
The Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, commonly known as ISIS , claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on its Amaq website. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Egypt’s Christians have been the victims of ISIS attacks.
On December 11, 2016, a suicide bomber attacked the small church of St. Peter and St. Paul, attached to St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral located in Cairo. As a result of that attack, 25 Christians were killed, mostly women and children, marking the deadliest attack on Egypt’s Christians in modern history. Eventually, ISIS (Islamic State – IS) claimed responsibility for the bombing and promised more attacks in the future.
In February 2017, hundreds of Christian families living in El-Arish, a city located in the Sinai Peninsula, fled their homes following a series of killings targeting Christians. Between January 30 and February 23, seven Christian men living in and around El-Arish were targeted and murdered by masked men. During the height of the killings, an ISIS affiliate operating in the Sinai promised to eliminate the Christian minority, claiming that Egypt’s Christians were the group’s “favorite prey.”
William Stark, ICC’s Regional Manager, said, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Christian families affected by these deadly attacks.
“No one should have to fear senseless violence like this for simply attending a church service. These bombings represent the second and third church bombings Egypt’s Christians have had to endure in recent months.
“Action must be taken by Egypt’s authorities to secure the country’s Christian communities and their places of worship, especially as we enter Holy Week. Unless decisive action is taken, attacks like these will likely continue.”
For interviews with William Stark, Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo captions: 1) Coptic Christians were marking Palm Sunday in Tanta (EPA). 2) Four police officers were among those killed in Alexandria (EPA). 3) Relatives of the victims gathered in front of the church in Tanta after the attack (Reuters). 4) The coffins of some of the victims of the explosion at St Peter and St Paul church in Cairo. (Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP) 5) Michael Ireland.
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Chief Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ANS since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. Please consider helping Michael cover his expenses in bringing news of the Persecuted Church, by logging-on to: https://actintl.givingfuel.com/ireland-michael
** You may republish this or any of our ANS stories with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net). Please also tell your friends and colleagues that they can get a complimentary subscription to ANS by going to the website and signing up there.