CAIRO • Back-to-back bombings at two Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday killed more than three dozen people and injured over a hundred in the deadliest assault on the country's Coptic Christian minority in years.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for both attacks - the first inside the Mar Girgis church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, north of Cairo, and the second outside St Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria.
At least 27 people were reported killed and 78 wounded in the Tanta bombing, which was caused by a device placed under the first row of pews, according to state-run media.
The second, carried out just a few hours later by a suicide bomber in Alexandria, hit the historic seat of the Coptic Pope, killing 16, including three police officers, and injuring 41. Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church, had attended mass at St Mark's Cathedral and was still in the building at the time of the explosion but was unhurt, said the Ministry of Interior.
One of the police officers who was killed had tried to prevent a suspected suicide bomber from entering the church, according to the Ahram Gate news website.
ISIS' Amaq news agency said on social media: "A group that belongs to Islamic State carried out the two attacks on the churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria."
The Egyptian authorities have struggled to rein in a wave of attacks, mostly carried out by militants affiliated with ISIS in northern Sinai. The militants have also struck in urban centres and targeted Coptic Christians, the Middle East's largest Christian minority and one of the oldest. They are widely estimated to make up 10 per cent of Egypt's 92 million residents.
The attacks took place on Palm Sunday, one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar. They also took place ahead of a visit to Cairo by Pope Francis on April 28 and 29.
Egyptian officials denounced the attack as a bid to sow divisions, while Pope Francis sent his "deep condolences" to Pope Tawadros.
The attacks underscored the challenges confronting the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as it tries to attract global investors to revive an economy battered by years of unrest. In his meeting with US President Donald Trump at the White House last week, the Egyptian leader focused on the need to combat terrorism, while pressing for continued US aid to his nation.
Egyptian shares dropped after the attacks, with the benchmark EGX 30 Index retreating 1.6 per cent as of 1.46pm in Cairo.
"This type of attack is the most dangerous since it inflicts the maximum amount of damage on human lives, disrupts tourism and shakes the image of the state," said Mr Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates. "It turns the conflict from a confrontation in the desert to a civil conflict in the heart of Egypt."
Mr Sisi convened an emergency session of the national security council. Terrorism "will not undermine the will of Egyptians in facing the forces of evil, but will make them more determined to overcome hardship", he said.
BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
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