Two dozen people were killed and twice as many injured when a bomb exploded around 10 a.m. Sunday morning during a worship service at the spiritual center of Christianity in Egypt.
The terrorist attack, with a reported death toll of 24 victims and another 49 to 65 wounded, was the worst to target Copts since the 2011 New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 23 people.
A worship service of mostly women was targeted in the St. Peter and St. Paul church, adjacent to the prominent St. Mark’s Cathedral and papal residence of Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt and worldwide.
Tawadros was traveling in Greece at the time of the attack. He will cut short his visit and lead funeral prayers tomorrow in the Nasr City district of Cairo.
So far, there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.
“This is an unbelievable act against Egypt first and Christians second,” Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, told CT.
“They wanted to destroy the innocent lives of people praying, at a time we are facing great economic challenges,” he said.
“Now they want to hit our unity. But this is a time of solidarity, as we stand with the Orthodox Church and our country.”
Zaki plans to attend funeral prayers, and believes President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi may do the same.
Sisi immediately declared three days of national mourning.
“Terrorism targets the country's Copts and Muslims,” he said in a statement carried by Ahram Online. “Egypt will only be made stronger and more united in such circumstances.”
Women may have been the majority of victims because many churches divide the sanctuary by gender, with women on the right. [Editor’s note: Women and children were approximately two-thirds of the victims.]
But women may also have been the majority because the attack took place on Sunday, a working day in Egypt. The primary day of worship for most churches is Friday, the Muslim day of communal prayers.
However, this Sunday was also a national holiday, as Egyptian Muslims celebrated the birthday of Muhammad.
Al Azhar, the leading religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world, condemned the attack.
“Targeting houses of worship and the killing of the innocents are criminal acts that violate Islamic principles,” the Cairo-based institution stated, expressing full solidarity with the Egyptian church and Egyptian Copts.
Egypt has been facing an Islamist insurgency since the 2013 removal of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi. Retaliatory attacks have damaged or destroyed dozens of churches throughout the country.
The Muslim Brotherhood condemned the attack, but held Sisi responsible for an alleged “false flag” operation, accusing him of stoking sectarian tension and seeking to lead Egypt into a civil war. They called on the Egyptian people to resist his “coup.”
But last month, Egypt witnessed calm when a planned protest against economic conditions, supported by the Brotherhood, failed to mobilize the population.
Egypt recently floated its national currency, and the resulting 20 percent inflation is the highest in seven years. The tourism industry has still not recovered since the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai last year.
And two days ago, six policemen were killed when a bomb exploded at a checkpoint in Cairo’s Haram district, on the road toward the Giza pyramids.
Egyptian Christians overwhelmingly support the current government and President Sisi, who as defense minister overthrew Morsi following large-scale popular protests. But some have grown frustrated that sectarian incidents have continued over the past three years, and the state has not responded adequately.
Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, wrote in a recent op-ed before Sunday’s attacks, “Does this authority … grasp the magnitude of the responsibility it shoulders where the dignity, sovereignty, and clout of the State is concerned?
“Or does it simply let matters be, allowing abusers and lawbreakers to grow in might as the State stands powerless?”
Sisi has vowed to bring the criminals to justice, but CNN reported that hundreds of protestors gathered outside the Coptic cathedral after the bombing. They called for the resignation of the minister of the interior, and minor scuffles took place with police.
But for now, Egypt and its Christians are in mourning.
“We pray for the martyrs and those at the hospital,” said Zaki. “We hope that Egypt will overcome this.”