The Islamic State claimed responsibility for bombings at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt that killed at least 43 people during crowded Palm Sunday services.
The blasts took place in the Nile Delta town of Tanta and the coastal city of Alexandria. The death toll in Tanta was at least 27, the Interior Ministry reported. Al-Ahram Arabic reported that security forces also dismantled two explosive devices at Sidi Abdel Rahim Mosque in Tanta, a city of more than 400,000 about 80 miles southeast of Alexandria. The mosque is considered among the most important in city.
The death toll at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria was at least 16, the ministry said. The attacks, which injured more than 100, came less than a week after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the White House.
“So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns. I have great…confidence that President Al Sisi will handle situation properly,” President Trump tweeted.
Sisi ordered the armed forces to help police secure vital locations across the nation. The president also ordered three days of national mourning for the victims.
Palm Sunday is among the holiest days on the Christian calendar, marking the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and churches traditionally draw big crowds. Susan Mikhail, who lives near St. George’s Church in Tanta, told the Associated Press the explosion violently shook her building.
“Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes,” she told AP. Many of the more seriously wounded were carried out by survivors and shuttled to hospitals in private cars, she said.
In Alexandria, the ministry said a suicide bomber had planned to use an explosive belt inside the church, but the security force assigned to protect the cathedral stopped him. At least three police officers were killed preventing the suicide bomber from entering the cathedral, Ahram Online reported. Authorities said the Coptic pope for Alexandria, Pope Tawadros II, was inside the cathedral leading the prayers but was not injured.
Egyptian state television broadcast footage that appear to show the suicide bomber outside the Alexandria cathedral.
The footage, from the church’s security cameras, shows a man with a blue sweater slung over his shoulders attempt to enter the cathedral, and being directed to pass through a metal detector first.
The man enters the detector briefly, then takes a step back and the screen is filled with smoke.
In Washington last week, Trump praised hard-line Egyptian leader Sisi for doing a “fantastic job” and solicited his help in the fight against terrorism and violent extremists. Sisi led the 2013 ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected to replace the deposed Hosni Mubarak. Since Morsi’s removal, Egypt has been plagued by militant attacks.
The Coptic Church is based on the teachings of Saint Mark, the apostle who brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century, a dozen years after the death of Jesus. The religion claims to have about 15 million members among Egypt’s 80 million people. Egyptian officials, however, have estimated the Coptic population is just a fraction of that.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement after Sunday’s attacks expressing condolences to victims their families and loved ones.
“The United States stands firmly with the Egyptian government and people to defeat terrorism,” the statement said.
Pope Francis, French President Francois Hollande, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin were among world leaders to quickly issue condolences, Putin adding that “the crime committed in the middle of a religious holiday shocks with its cruelty and cynicism.”
A bombing April 1 at a police training center in Tanta wounded 16 people. Liwa al-Thawra (Revolutionary Brigade) claimed responsibility for that attack, the SITE Intelligence group reported.