At least 37 people were killed and more than 100 injured in two separate bombings at Christian Coptic churches packed with worshippers in northern Egypt one week before Coptic Easter, Reuters reports.
The first bombing, in Tanta, a Nile Delta city less than 100 kilometers outside Cairo, killed at least 26 and injured at least 78, Egypt's Ministry of Health said. The second, carried out just a few hours later by a suicide bomber in Alexandria, hit the historic seat of the Coptic Pope, killing 11, including three police officers, and injuring 35, the ministry added. In a separate explosion, one person has been reported killed in a bombing of the Tanta police academy.
Egyptians gather in front of a bombed Coptic church in Tanta, Egypt, April 9
Shortly after the explosions, ISIS via its al-Amaq news agency, claimed responsibility for the bombings.
The attacks are the latest in a series of assaults on Egypt's Christian minority, which makes up around 10% of the population and has been repeatedly targeted by Islamic extremists. They come just one week before Coptic Easter and the same month Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Egypt. The deadly bombing take place as the Islamic State branch in Egypt appears to be stepping up attacks and threats against Christians. In February, Christian families and students fled Egypt's North Sinai province after a spate of targeted killings.
Those attacks came after one of the deadliest on Egypt's Christian minority, when a suicide bomber hit its largest Coptic cathedral, killing at least 25. Islamic State later claimed responsibility for that attack too.
According to Reuters, CBC TV showed footage from inside the Tanta church, where a large number of people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers. Thousands gathered outside the church in Tanta shortly after the blast, some wearing black, crying, and describing a scene of carnage.
"There was blood all over the floor and body parts scattered," said a Christian woman who was inside the church. "There was a huge explosion in the hall. Fire and smoke filled the room and the injuries were extremely severe," another Christian woman, Vivian Fareeg, said.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail are set to visit the Tanta site on Sunday and Sisi has ordered an emergency national defense council meeting, state news reported.
The spike in bombings marks a deadly shift in Islamic State's tactics, "which has waged a low-level conflict for years in the Sinai peninsula against soldiers and police, to targeting Christian civilians and broadening its reach into Egypt's mainland is a potential turning point in a country trying to prevent a provincial insurgency from spiraling into wider sectarian bloodshed."
Egypt's Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities. In 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya were killed by Islamic State.
"Of course we feel targeted, there was a bomb here about a week ago but it was dismantled. There's no security," said another Christian woman in Tanta referring to an attack earlier this month near a police training center that killed one policeman and injured 15..
Copts face regular attacks by Muslim neighbors, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or the construction of a church.
Pope Francis expressed his "deepest condolences" to all Egyptians and to the head of the Coptic Church during his Palm Sunday Mass before tens of thousands of people in St Peter's Square. "I pray for the dead and the victims. May the Lord convert the hearts of people who sow terror, violence and death and even the hearts of those who produce and traffic in weapons," he said.
In light of recent geopolitical developments, a military response from the US to the two bombings is likely.