At least 36 people were killed and more than 100 injured in bomb attacks on two Coptic churches on Palm Sunday, in the latest assault on a religious minority increasingly targeted by extremists.
The first bombing, took place in the Nile Delta town of Tanta in a church that was packed with Palm Sunday worshippers, killing at least 25 people and wounding 78 others, Egypt’s Ministry of Health said.
Video footage and images reportedly taken from inside the church showed a large number of people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.
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.
Pope Tawadros, who had attended mass at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, was still in the building at the time of the explosion but was not harmed, the Ministry of Interior said.
ISIS has claimed the two bombing, with the group’s news agency saying: “A group that belongs to ISIS carried out the two attacks on the churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.”
The attacks were the latest in a series of assaults on Egypt’s Christian minority, which makes up around 10 percent of the population and has been repeatedly targeted by Islamic extremists. They come just one week before Coptic Easter and the same month as Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Egypt.
Pope Francis has condemned the attack, and called on terrorists, arms manufacturers and traffickers to stop.
The pontiff expressed his “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation,” and said he was praying for the dead and wounded in the attack. Word of the bombing came as Francis himself was marking Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square.
The pontiff asked God “to convert the hearts of those who spread terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those who make, and traffic in, weapons.”
ISIS’ 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.
A militant group called Liwa al-Thawra claimed responsibility for an April 1 bomb attack targeting a police training center in Tanta, which wounded 16 people. The group, believed to be linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, has mainly targeted security forces and distanced itself from attacks on Christians.
Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of an elected Islamist president.