Attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 40 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services—including the one where Pope Tawadros II was worshiping.
ISIS claimed responsibility. In February, the Egypt chapter of the Islamist extremists had released a threatening video calling Coptic Christians “our priority and our preferred prey.” Soon after, about 100 Christian families fled their homes in the Sinai Peninsula amid a string of murders.
Reuters reports more details on the bombing in Tanta at Mar Girgis (St. George) Church, which killed at least 27 and injured more than 70. CNN reports more details on the Alexandria bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral, which killed at least 16 and injured more than 40. [Before ending its live updates, state media outlet Ahram Online put the final toll from Egypt’s health ministry at 29 dead in Tanta and 18 dead in Alexandria.]
Nader Wanis, director of the Arkan Cultural Center in Alexandria, was worshiping at the Anglican Pro-Cathedral only two streets from St. Mark’s when the bomb went off. “It was only a few minutes before serving communion and it shook our whole church,” he told CT. “We were scared, but insisted to continue.”
A member of Tanta’s Christian community described to CT a chaotic scene with many people in the streets. “I don’t know what to say. I’m still shocked,” said the Coptic woman, who requested anonymity. “But people are angry, and don’t understand how this happened amid all the security.” (Two weeks earlier in Tanta, a bomb was defused at Mar Girgis—the city’s largest church—and a local police training center was attacked.)
Tawadros was attending the service at the Alexandria cathedral, which serves as his historical seat in one of the five ancient sees of early Christianity. But the patriarch was unharmed by the suicide bomber, who blew himself up after being directed through a metal detector. Three police officers died in the intervention, according to state media.
Egypt’s Al-Azhar, widely regarded as the world’s highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, strongly condemned the attack, calling it an “outrageous crime.” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared three days of national mourning.
Pope Francis, who is scheduled to visit Egypt later this month, condemned the attack during his Palm Sunday remarks in St. Peter’s Square. He prayed that God would “convert the hearts of those who spread terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those who make, and traffic in, weapons,” reports the Associated Press.
Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, also condemned the attack. “This black terrorism aims to create fear among Christians and stop them from going to church,” he told CT. “But we will work together in solidarity with the state, Muslims, Pope Tawadros, and all Christians to fight terrorism and bring Egypt to stability.”
A Tanta hospital operated by the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile opened its doors and received one-third of the medical cases, said Zaki. “During this week of Jesus’ suffering, we will pray to God to give us protection and healing, and comfort to the families of the martyrs.”
Pope Tawadros had previously sought to downplay the Sinai attacks, saying Coptic problems in Egypt were “minor.” The Egyptian government has highlighted recent successes in its fight against terrorism, including clearing a major mountainous region and killing the local ISIS leader.
But Grand Mufti Shawki Allam recently lamented a tally of more than 3,000 fatwas that incite the destruction of Egyptian churches. The government has been trying to combat such sentiments.
The church bombings are the deadliest since a December attack at a chapel of the flagship St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo killed 29 mostly women and children on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. That attack on the spiritual center of the Coptic Orthodox church was the deadliest modern terrorism against Egyptian Christians until today’s attacks.
ISIS also claimed the Cairo attack, and vowed it was “just the beginning.”
The previous deadliest attack on Christians also took place in Alexandria. In 2011, a New Year’s Eve attack at the Mediterranean coastal city’s Church of Two Saints killed 23 worshipers.
In the aftermath of today’s Tanta and Alexandria bombings, Wanis—profiled by CT’s This Is Our City project in 2012—prays that Copts won’t “explode.” “Like all Egyptians, Copts suffer economic problems and have difficulty to emigrate,” he told CT. “But now they are also being persecuted.”
But Wanis sought a clear and purposeful response. He immediately invited Muslim youth members of the Arkan Center to discuss what can be done together.
“Copts are frustrated and angry, and they don’t know what to do,” he said. “All I can do is promote peace.”
Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber