ISIS claims responsibility for Tanta church blast

Security personnel investigate the scene of a bomb explosion inside Mar Girgis church in Tanta, Egypt, on April 9, 2017. PHOTO: EPA
People gather in front of Mar Girgis church after a bomb explosion. PHOTO: EPA
An explosion rocked a Coptic church in the city of Tanta, Egypt, on April 9, 2017, during a Palm Sunday service. PHOTO: TWITTER/@HAMOSH84

CAIRO (Reuters) - At least 36 people were killed and 100 injured on Sunday (April 9) when an explosion rocked a Coptic church in Egypt's Nile Delta, state television reported, the latest assault on a religious minority that has increasingly been targeted by Islamist militants.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for 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 pontiff condemned the blast. "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," he said at the end of his Palm Sunday Mass before tens of thousands of people in St Peter's Square in the Vatican.

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He expressed his "deepest condolences" to all Egyptians and to the head of the Coptic Church, who is due to be one of his hosts on the April 28-29 trip.

The bombing in Tanta, a Nile Delta city less than 100km outside Cairo, comes as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) branch in Egypt appears to be stepping up attacks on Christians and threatening them in messages blasted out to followers.

In February, Christian families and students fled Egypt's North Sinai province in droves after Islamic State began a spate of targeted killings there.

Those attacks came after one the deadliest on Egypt's Christian minority in years - before today - when a suicide bomber hit its largest Coptic cathedral, killing at least 25.

Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the attack.

Eyewitnesses to Sunday's blast described a scene of carnage. "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 told Reuters by phone. General Tarek Atiya, a spokesperson at Egypt's interior ministry, told AFP news agency that the blast took place near the altar.

"There was blood all over the floor and body parts scattered," said another Christian woman who was inside the church.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail are set to visit the site on Sunday and Sisi has ordered an emergency national defence council meeting, state news reported.

A shift in Islamic State's tactics, which has waged a low-level conflict for years in the Sinai peninsula against soldiers and police, to targeting Christian civilians and broadening its reach into Egypt's mainland is a potential turning point in a country trying to prevent a provincial insurgency from spiralling into wider sectarian bloodshed.

Egypt's Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities.

In 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya were killed by Islamic State.

Copts 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.

Tanta was also the site of another attack earlier this month, when a policeman was killed and 15 were injured after a bomb exploded near a police training centre.

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