CAIRO • Masked gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying Coptic Christians on a visit to a monastery, killing at least 26 people, including many children, in the latest deadly assault on Egypt's embattled religious minority.
The assailants in three pickup trucks attacked the bus yesterday as it carried visitors to the Saint Samuel monastery in Minya province, more than 200km from Cairo, the Interior Ministry said.
Pictures of the bus aired by state television showed the vehicle riddled with bullet holes from machine-gun fire and its windows shot out.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting, which came on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan. It followed a series of church bombings claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in December and April, killing dozens of Christians.
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt's top religious authority, condemned the attack, which he said was intended to destabilise the country. "I call on Egyptians to unite in the face of this brutal terrorism," Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb said from Germany, where he was on a visit.
Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawki Allam also condemned the perpetrators as traitors.
State television quoted a Health Ministry official as saying a "large number" of victims were children. Another 25 people were wounded.
"They used automatic weapons," Minya province's Governor Essam el-Bedawi told state television. He said police were fanning out along the road where the attack took place and had set up checkpoints.
Bishop Makarios of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Minya province said many of the victims had been shot at close range.
"The gunmen got on the bus and they shot people point blank," Bishop Makarios said. He described frantic scenes at three Minya hospitals where the injured were treated, and where hundreds of people sought news of missing relatives.
The attack came after militants threatened more strikes against the Copts, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 90 million people.
The Coptic Church, in a statement on its spokesman's Facebook page, called for "measures to be taken to prevent the dangers of those incidents that tarnish Egypt's image".
On Dec 11 last year, 29 people were killed when ISIS suicide bombers struck a Cairo church next to St Mark's Cathedral - the seat of the Coptic Pope.
Four months later on April 11, bombers attacked two churches north of Cairo on Palm Sunday, killing 45 people, in the deadliest strike against the Copts.
The bombings prompted President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to declare a three-month state of emergency.
The Egyptian affiliate of ISIS has also killed several Copts in North Sinai, forcing dozens of families to flee the province in January.
The shooting came exactly four weeks after a historic visit to Egypt by Catholic Pope Francis to show solidarity with the country's Christians. During his trip, the pontiff visited one of the bombed Coptic churches and condemned violence carried out in the name of God.
The Copts have suffered sectarian attacks for years, and tensions between Christians and Muslims are the highest in Minya.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, REUTERS