ISIS claimed responsibility for bombings that killed 36 at two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday — brazen strikes against a vulnerable minority on one of the most important days on the Christian calendar.
The terror group’s Amaq media wing said “a security detachment” of the Islamic State carried out the attacks on churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria. The bombings also left scores wounded.
CNN could not independently confirm that ISIS was behind the attacks — or had any involvement in planning them. ISIS often uses Amaq news agency to claim attacks after they have happened.
The first blast was in the northern city of Tanta, where a powerful explosion ripped through a Palm Sunday service at St George’s Church, killing 25 people and wounding 60 others, state TV reported. The explosive device was planted under a seat in the main prayer hall, it said.
Not long after that, at least 11 people were killed and 35 others wounded in a suicide bomb attack outside Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, according to two state-news outlets. Egyptian state media also reported that the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, was inside the Church when the blast happened. He was not injured.
In a statement, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi condemned the attacks, saying the “outrageous” action “targets both the Copts and Muslims of the homeland.” He ordered investigators to “hunt down the perpetrators” and “take all measures to offer the necessary care for the wounded.”
He has called an urgent meeting of his country’s National Defense Council.
“The attack will not undermine the resolve and true will of the Egyptian people to counter the forces of evil, but will only harden their determination to move forward on their trajectory to realize security, stability and comprehensive development,” the statement said..
The horrific attacks were the latest against Christians in the region, this time on Palm Sunday — the Sunday before Easter, and the day that marks the start of Holy Week for Christians.
Nile and Masriya TV, Egyptian state outlets, aired black banners in the upper left of its newscasts to signify mourning for the victims of both explosions.
News footage from Tanta shows people gathering at the church, singing hymns. The video then quickly switches to bars as harrowing screams and cries echo in the background.
“Everything is destroyed inside the church” and blood can be seen on marble pillars, said Peter Kamel, who saw the aftermath of the carnage.
It appeared the explosive device was placed near the altar, he said. Priests and the church choir were among the casualties.
State TV reported that Gen. Hossam El-Din Khalifa, head of the security directorate in Gharbiya province, has been replaced. Tanta is in Gharbiya province.
In Alexandria, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that police assigned to St. Mark’s stopped a terrorist with an explosive belt from breaking into the church. Along with civilians, a policeman, a policewoman and other police staff were killed.
Egyptian blogger Maged Butter told CNN he saw five or six ambulances and blood stains 100 meters away from the site of the explosion — which happened near the church gate.
He said women were crying and looking for their loved ones and were yelling at police for “not protecting” them.
“Every now and then, I see a person crying — I think they are Christian — and they keep saying: ‘have you seen my family? Have you seen my family?’ ” Butter said.
Fadi Sami, another witness, was inside the Alexandria cathedral when he heard about the church bombing in Tanta, when the Coptic pope was leading the prayers for Palm Sunday.
And even though no one announced the Tanta news, Sami said he could hear the sadness in the pope’s voice. He left as the pope finished the sermon. Twenty minutes later, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate of the church.
“I came back and the area was covered in smoke. The stores around the church were all destroyed,” he said. “There were bodies and body parts everywhere, outside and inside the gate. I saw a man put together what was left of his son in a bag.”
“It’s difficult to process this idea, that if I left 20 minutes later, I would have stopped to exist in this world,” the 26-year-old Sami told CNN.
Alexandria sits on the Mediterranean and has a large Christian population. Downtown is usually busy but was relatively quiet on Sunday because of the holiday. “This is usually a very busy area, but thank God it is a Sunday, and many shops are closed,” he said.
Copts have faced persecution and discrimination that has spiked since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
Dozens have been killed in sectarian clashes. In December, an attack at a Coptic church in Cairo killed 25 people.
Coptic churches and homes have been set on fire, members of the Coptic minority have been physically attacked, and their property has been looted, rights group Amnesty International reported in March.
Coptic Christians make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 91 million. They base their theology on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, who introduced Christianity to Egypt. Tanta is roughly 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Cairo, in the Nile delta.
The bombings come days after President Donald Trump welcomed el-Sisi to Washington and stressed his support for Cairo. Among the topics of mutual concern were terrorism and ISIS.
El-Sisi met Saturday with a US congressional delegation led by US Rep. Darrell Issa, the Egyptian government said.
The meeting addressed Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts and a strategy to fight terror and encourage religious tolerance and acceptance of others.
The Tanta attack drew condemnation from religious and political leaders across the globe.
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Cairo this month, where he will meet with various religious leaders, including the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He expressed his grief following the church attack.
“To my dear brother his Holiness Pope Tawadros II, to the Coptic church and to all of the dear country Egypt, I express my deep condolences, I prayed for the dead and the wounded, I am close to the families and to the entire community. God convert the hearts of the people who spread terror, violence and dead, and also the heart of who produces and traffic weapons,” the Pope said.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called the attacks “evil” and urged people to pray for the victims.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin condemned the attack and offered his condolences to el-Sisi, according to Russia’s state-run Tass.