Thursday 24 August 2017

Palm Sunday massacre kills 44 as Isil bombers target Christians

The aftermath in St George’s Church. Photo: AFP/Getty
The aftermath in St George’s Church. Photo: AFP/Getty

Sara Elizabeth Williams and Magdy Samaan

Twin bombings devastated Egypt's Christian community yesterday, killing at least 44 people as Palm Sunday celebrations were crushed by blood-spattered violence.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts at Alexandria and Tanta, which also injured more than 100 people.

The latest in a string of assaults on Egypt's Christian minority came as Pope Francis prepares to visit in a show of support later this month.

In the Nile delta town of Tanta, about 60 miles north of Cairo, a bomb tore through the packed Mar Gerges church, killing at least 27 worshippers and injuring more than 70.

Hundreds gathered outside the church shortly after the blast, some weeping, while inside, pews were blown apart and a display of palm fronds was covered in blood.

Witnesses to the Mar Gerges blast told 'The Daily Telegraph' the suicide bomber had been close to the first row of pews when he detonated a device.

A relative of one of the victims reacts. Photo: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
A relative of one of the victims reacts. Photo: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Most of the dead, said bystanders, were church servants who had been performing ceremonial duties near the altar at the front of the church.

"I was at the altar when I heard the explosion. I fell to the ground," church steward Victor Foad told the Telegraph. "I kept looking at the human remains, but I didn't recognise who was who because their faces were so damaged, even though I know them."

The church entrance was equipped with a detector for weapons and explosives - leading many to wonder how the atrocity could have happened.

Hours later in Alexandria, 77 miles to the west, another suicide bomber blew himself up outside St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, Egypt's oldest church and the historic seat of the church's pope. At least 17 people were killed and more than 40 injured.

A suicide bomber approaches St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. Photo: Egyptian Interior Ministry via AP
A suicide bomber approaches St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. Photo: Egyptian Interior Ministry via AP

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 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.

Isil claimed the attacks via its Aamaq news agency, after having recently warned that it would step up violence against Egypt's Christians.

Pope Tawadros led the St Mark's Mass, but had already left when the bombing occurred.

When asked to enter a metal detector he detonates his bomb. Photo: AP
When asked to enter a metal detector he detonates his bomb. Photo: AP

"These acts will not harm the unity and cohesion of the people," he later said.

Josef Malak, a lawyer and Coptic activist, was at the church when the blast happened around 12.30pm local time. He and other worshippers were locked inside by police as a precautionary measure.

Witnesses said the Alexandria attack happened outside the main gate of the church compound, after the bomber was blocked by police from entering. "When the police officer tried to stop him by force, he exploded the explosive belt, killing the police officer and himself," said Kameel Sadiq Sawiras, secretary general of the church council.

The atrocities are the latest assault on a minority increasingly targeted by Islamist militants, and a challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has pledged to protect them in his campaign against extremism.

At around 10 per cent of the population, Egypt's Coptic Christians form the largest minority in the Muslim-majority country of 90 million.

Egyptians wheel away a body. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Egyptians wheel away a body. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump, who hosted Mr Sisi last week in his first official visit to the US, expressed support for a leader he has said he plans to work more closely with on fighting Islamist militants.

"So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. US strongly condemns. I have great confidence that President Al Sisi will handle situation properly," Mr Trump tweeted.

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson said: "The UK continues to stand with Egypt against terrorism. These attacks only strengthen our determination to work together with the Egyptian government and people against this shared threat."

Elsewhere, there was an outpouring of sympathy from leaders from across the Christian, Muslim and Jewish worlds.

Pope Francis expressed his ''deep condolences" to his "brother" Tawadros, as well as to the Coptic church and "all of the dear Egyptian nation".

Mr Sisi said a three-month state of emergency would be imposed after the two bombings.

An Isil affiliate claimed a December suicide bombing at a Cairo church that killed about 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the northern Sinai that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country.

The militants recently released a video vowing to step up attacks against Christians, whom they regard as "infidels".

Egypt has struggled to combat Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

Irish Independent

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