Yesterday, two Coptic churches in Egypt were hit by suicide bombers. The first blast took place at St. George’s in Tanta, a Nile delta city, at around 9:30 in the morning. Several hours later, another bomb went off at the gates of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. Both bombings have now been found to be suicide bombings. In Tanta, the bomber made it into the church and detonated his bombs in the front pews. 27 people are reported dead there, with 71 injured at least. However, police in Alexandria were able to intercept the suicide bomber outside the cathedral, preventing him from entering. He detonated his bombs there, killing the two officers who stopped him, along with 11 others, and leaving 21 more people injured, according to the Health Ministry. Pope Tawadros II was at the Cathedral, but he was not injured in the explosion. Daesh/ISIL immediately claimed responsibility for both attacks. “Crusaders and their apostate allies should know the bill between us and them is very big and they will pay it with rivers of blood from their children, god willing. Wait for us, for we will wait for you,” the jihadist group said in a statement quoted by Reuters news agency.
The attacks were deliberately timed to coincide with Palm Sunday; Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi had put security forces on high alert in advance of the holy day, anticipating possible attacks. The bomber at St. George’s church is reported by witnesses to have slipped past metal detectors through a side door.
In response to the bombings, President Sisi has declared a three month state of emergency. The measure still needs to be approved by parliament, but the majority there backs Sisi. It would allow authorities to make arrests and search homes without warrants. Nonetheless, Christians in Egypt are growing increasingly doubtful of the government’s ability or willingness to protect them.
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Egypt in support of the Coptic Church in a few weeks. “I pray for the dead and the injured, and I am close in spirit to the family members and to the entire community,” he said in response to yesterday’s attacks. 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”. Archbishop Justin Welby tweeted, “Evil attacks at St George’s Tanta Egypt. As we come to Easter pray for victims, the justice of the cross, hope & healing of resurrection”
Coptic Christians make up approximately 10% of the population in Egypt. They have faced rising violence in recent years; in December, we reported on the bombing of St. Peter’s church in Cairo. For more on Coptic Christianity in Egypt, see this BBC article, which includes a section by Sebastian Usher, the BBC Arab Affairs editor.