CAIRO - Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for two bomb blasts that struck Coptic churches in Egypt, killing at least 47 people as members of the country’s largest religious minority celebrated Palm Sunday.
An explosion in the city of Tanta, about 56 miles (90km) north of Cairo killed 29 and injured 71 as they prayed at the Mar Girgis church according to the Egyptian health ministry. A second blast struck the Egyptian port city of Alexandria three hours later, killing 18 and wounding 35.
The bombings were the latest in a series of attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority, who account for about 10% of the population and have been repeatedly targeted by Islamic extremists. The attacks come weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit Egypt.
Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced a three-month state of emergency on Sunday night in response to the bombings after meeting his national security chiefs.
Video from the moment the blast struck the Mar Girgis church in Tanta just before 10am on Sunday showed the sounds of a choir gathered to sing hymns celebrating the Christian holy day, rapidly turning to screams of anguish and panic. Egypt’s state television later reported that a bomb planted under one of the pews ripped through the church.
“As I was passing by the church, I heard a huge blast. I’d never heard a sound like this,” said Salah el Arby, a taxi driver in the town of Tanta.
“People began running out of the church, shouting and afraid. I believe this attack was the fault of the security forces,” he continued, citing a bomb previously diffused by police at Mar Girgis church in the town on the 29 March.
The second blast in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria struck St Marks Coptic Orthodox church came three hours later. Egyptian state media reported that Coptic Pope Tawadros II was inside the church when the explosion struck, after leading worshippers in Palm Sunday prayers.
Three policeman were killed as they tried to prevent the suicide bomber from entering St Marks Cathedral in Alexandria, including one who embraced the suicide bomber just 100 metres from the Cathedral, preventing him from entering.