Palm Sunday church bombings in Egypt kill 43, wound dozens
TANTA, Egypt — Bombs exploded at two Coptic churches in different cities in northern Egypt as worshippers were celebrating Palm Sunday, killing at least 43 people and wounding about 100 in an assault claimed by the Islamic State group.
The blasts came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit the Arab world's most populous country, which has been beset by extremist violence against its minority Christians.
In the first attack, a bomb went off inside St. George's Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78, officials said.
A few hours later, a suicide bomber rushed toward St. Mark's Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, killing at least 16 people and wounding 41, the Interior Ministry said.
CCTV images broadcast on Egyptian channels showed a man in a blue pullover approach the main gate to St. Mark's but being turned away and directed toward a metal detector. The man then passes a female police officer chatting to another woman, and enters a metal detector before an explosion engulfs the area.
Pope Tawadros II had held Palm Sunday services at the cathedral, but his aides said he had escaped unharmed. The timing of the attack raised the question of whether the bomber had sought to assassinate the pope, leader of one of the world's oldest Christian communities.
IS claimed the attacks via its Aamaq news agency, after having recently warned that it would step up violence against Egypt's Christians.
CBC TV showed footage from inside the church in Tanta, where people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.
"After the explosion, everything became dark from the smoke," said Edmond Edward, attending services with his brother, Emil, who was wounded and leaned on him for support at a nearby hospital, his head covered in bandages.
"There was a clear lapse in security, which must be tightened from now on to save lives," he said. He added that the blast appeared to be centered near the altar and that the priest leading the service, Father Daniel, was wounded.
Susan Mikhail, whose apartment balcony across the street has a clear view of the church and its front yard, said 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 The Associated Press. Later, the more seriously wounded were carried out by other survivors and taken to hospitals in private cars, she said.
Hundreds of residents gathered in the area, and church members blocked people — including journalists — from entering the church as police cordoned off the area.
Regional police chief Brig. Gen. Hossam Elddin Khalifa was fired over the incident, with Maj. Gen. Tarek Hassouna replacing him, state-run newspaper al-Ahram reported.
Pope Francis, marking Palm Sunday in St. Peter's Square, decried the bombings, expressing "deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation."
He is due to visit Egypt April 28-29.
President Donald Trump tweeted that he is "so sad to hear of the terrorist attack" against the U.S. ally but added that he has "great confidence" that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, "will handle the situation properly." The two leaders met at the White House on April 3.
Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt's Al-Azhar — the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam — also condemned the attacks, calling them a "despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents."
Both Israel and the Islamic Hamas movement ruling neighboring Gaza condemned the bombings as well.