Two suicide bombings that killed 44 people at Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday yesterday. The attacks constituted one of the deadliest days of ...
The attacks constituted one of the deadliest days of violence against Christians in Egypt in decades and presented a challenge to the authority of the country’s leader, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who promptly declared a three-month state of emergency.
Security is the central promise of Mr. Sisi, a strongman leader who returned on Friday from a triumphant visit to the United States, where President Trump hailed him as a bulwark against Islamist violence. Mr. Trump made it clear that he was willing to overlook the record of mass detention, torture and extrajudicial killings during Mr. Sisi’s rule in favor of his ability to combat the Islamic State and defend minority Christians.
Mr. Sisi found himself back on the defensive, deploying troops to protect churches across the country weeks before a planned visit by Pope Francis. Mr. Sisi rushed to assure Christians, who have traditionally been among his most vocal supporters and now fear that he cannot protect them against extremists.
After the bombing inside the St. George’s church in Tanta, about 50 miles north of Cairo. The explosion occurred after the authorities had sealed the main door to prevent attacks. Credit Khaled Elfiqi_European Pressphoto Agency
“I won’t say those who fell are Christian or Muslim,” Mr. Sisi said in a speech shown on state television on Sunday night. “I will say that they’re Egyptian.
the attack on Sunday struck at St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Church in Alexandria, where the bomber blew himself up at the church gates as the Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, led a Palm Sunday service.
The other struck in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, where the attacker slipped past security to the front pews of the church and blew himself up, turning a religious celebration of joy into a ghastly scene of bloodshed and death.
Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks through its Aamaq news agency, signaled in December its intention to step up attacks on Christians when a suicide bombing at a major Cairo church killed at least 28 people. In February, hundreds of Christians fled their homes in north Sinai after a concerted campaign of assassination and intimidation in the area.
but Mr. Sisi had already stepped up security at churches, Sunday’s bloodshed underscores the difficulty of stopping suicide attacks. More starkly, it highlighted the failure of Egypt’s powerful intelligence agencies to anticipate a coordinated wave of devastating attacks.
The explosion in Tanta, about 50 miles north of Cairo, occurred at St. George’s church, where the authorities had already sealed the main door to prevent attacks. The bomber managed to slip past security measures, including a metal detector, at one of the side doors, and blew himself up near the altar. At least 27 people were killed and 78 others injured, officials said.
Hours later, victims’ relatives stood silently outside the city morgue, waiting to identify and collect the remains of their loved ones. The Rev. Daniel Maher, a priest who had been leading the Mass, was still wearing his bloodstained white vestments. The priest said he had not been harmed in the attack, but he lost his son, Bishoy, who was to get married later this year.
What can I say? Thank God,” he said in a cracking voice.
Next to the priest, a young woman sat on the sidewalk, sobbing as a group of women tried to comfort her. “God, what did he do to deserve this, she asked, bemoaning the loss of her own loved one.
The second attack occurred just over two hours later in the coastal city of Alexandria, where a suicide bomber tried to enter St. Mark’s Cathedral.
Blood-covered pews inside St. George’s. The bomber slipped past security measures and blew himself up near the altar. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Surveillance footage, later aired on a private Egyptian television channel, showed a man wearing a bulky jacket being directed into a metal detector at the church gates, where he paused to be searched by a police officer. A moment later, a giant blast rang out. At least 17 people were killed, including a district police chief and a police officer, and an additional 48 were wounded, according to the Health Ministry.
Pope Tawadros, who is due to meet with Pope Francis during his visit to Egypt at the end of this month, was not injured in the blast. He later issued a statement saying that “these acts will not harm the unity and cohesion of the people.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, who are mostly Sunni Muslim, and have long complained of discrimination and sporadic violence at the hands of extremists. Christian leaders were vocal supporters of Mr. Sisi after he came to power in 2013 when the military ousted the elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Christians see Mr. Sisi as their defender, but Sunday’s events underscored how difficult it is for him to deliver on that promise, and raised pressing questions about security arrangements for Pope Francis’ visit on April 28 and 29.
As forensics specialists combed through bloodstained wreckage at the site of the two church bombings, security officials found and defused explosive devices at other locations in Alexandria and Tanta, the state news media reported. Two devices were found at the Sidi Abdel Rahim Mosque in Tanta, home to one of the most famous Sufi Muslim shrines in the city, and another was found at the Collège St. Marc, an all-boys school in downtown Alexandria.
Hany Georgie Salamah, who was injured in the bombing at St. George’s, at a hospital in Tanta. The attacks constituted one of the deadliest days of violence against Christians in Egypt in decades. Credit Nariman El-Mofty Associated Press
Hours later, Mr. Sisi convened a meeting of the National Defense Council, which includes the prime minister and commanders of the Egyptian armed forces, in response to the bombings. He then declared a three-month state of emergency, though it was not immediately clear what extra powers he required, given that his government enjoys largely unfettered powers, has already imprisoned or exiled thousands of political opponents, and oversees a Parliament that is dominated by his supporters.
In his televised speech, Mr. Sisi indicated that news media coverage of attacks that embarrass his authority could be restricted. “The media discourse has to be responsible,” he said. “It’s not acceptable to have the incident aired repeatedly on television stations all day.”
Egyptians are used to such moves. The country was officially under a state of emergency for all of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, and again for three months in 2013.
When Pope Francis arrives in Egypt, he will find a country where the Islamic State is intent on driving a wedge between Islam and Christianity.
The pontiff offered his condolences to the Copts and all Egyptians, and in his statement from Rome he referred to the Coptic patriarch as his “brother.” Francis’ scheduled visit to Egypt has been billed as the latest step in a long-running effort to forge stronger ties between the Roman Catholic Church and Muslim leaders
Mourners at St. George’s. Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people and have long complained of discrimination and sporadic violence at the hands of extremists. Credit Mohamed Abd El Ghany Reuters
Relations became strained in 2011 when Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, denounced what he called “a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target” after a bombing at a church in Alexandria killed at least 23 people.
Francis has sought to rebuild ties with Muslim clerics since becoming pope in 2013. And last year he welcomed to the Vatican Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar, a 1,000-year-old mosque and university that is revered by Sunni Muslims
In Egypt, the pontiff is to visit with Mr. Sisi; the leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church; and the grand imam.
imam condemned Sunday’s attacks as a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.
For many Christians, though, the attacks at the start of the Holy Week before Easter are a harbinger of worse to come.
“I think people will not only be too scared to be inside a church, they will be too scared to pass by one now,” said grand Mina Mansy, a prominent Christian rights activist “This will continue to happen because the state is not interested in protecting Christians, or anyone else for that matter. The police’s only job is to crush political opponents. They don’t care about the real terrorists attacks.