The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Palm Sunday bombs rock Egyptian churches; state of emergency is declared

Moments after the explosion rocked her church Sunday morning, Mona Faiez's phone rang. It was her sister, checking to see if she was alive.

She was unhurt; she wasn’t at the church, where 27 now lay dead and scores more were injured. But alerted by the call, she rushed toward it. These were her fellow parishioners, her closest friends.

“What kind of human could do this,” she asked, “and why?”

Less than three hours later, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at the entrance to St. Mark’s Cathedral in the northern city of Alexandria, killing 17 and injuring many more. The dead included three police officers who stopped the bomber from entering the site. The head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, was presiding over Palm Sunday Mass at the church, also packed with worshipers, but he was unharmed.

By Sunday night, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi had declared a state of emergency across the country for three months.

Altogether, at least 44 people died and more than 100 were injured in the two attacks, the deadliest single day to strike Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority in decades. The Islamic State asserted responsibility for both bombings through the Amaq News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamist militant group. World leaders, including Pope Francis and President Trump, condemned the attacks.

Here in Tanta, 80 miles north of Cairo, Faiez said she reached St. George’s Church shortly after 9.30 a.m.

Her closest friend, Soliman Shaker, was a church deacon in his 60s. He was preparing for his daughter’s wedding in a couple of weeks. The bomb, police said, had been planted in the church’s pews. But witnesses said a suicide bomber was in the pews when he detonated his explosives.

Shaker was dead.

“I ran to the church to find my lifelong friend shattered to pieces by the bomb,” said Faiez, 61, who lives nearby.

Sunday’s assaults threaten to further alienate the country’s Coptic Orthodox community, which makes up 10 percent of the population. For decades, Egypt’s Copts have felt discriminated against by the country’s Muslims, and assaults against them have intensified since the 2011 revolution — part of the Arab Spring uprisings — that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Christians largely supported the rise of Sissi, who came to power after the overthrow of elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. After taking office, Sissi launched a brutal crackdown on Islamists that was supported by many Christians.

See photos of the aftermath of two explosions at Coptic Christian churches in Egypt

Relatives mourn for the victims of the Palm Sunday bombings during their funeral at the Monastery of Saint Mina "Deir Mar Mina" in Alexandria, Egypt April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Yet anger within the Christian community toward Sissi is growing. After each attack in recent months, the government promised to safeguard Christians with improved security measures, but the assaults on the community have continued.

Outside the church in Tanta on Sunday, Christian and Muslim residents denounced the government and demanded accountability. Clashes broke out when officials of the provincial government tried to enter the church. Some neighbors stood on balconies crying, and relatives and friends of the victims wore black.

One man stood atop a barricade and screamed in frustration at a priest who arrived at the scene in a car.

“And now what, Father?” the man yelled. “Until when is our blood going to remain cheap? We are fed up! Do something, Father!”

At the Vatican on Sunday, Pope Francis, who plans to visit Egypt three weeks from now, denounced the bombings and expressed “his deep condolences” to Tawadros II and “all of the dear Egyptian nation.”

In remarks made after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope 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.”

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

Sunday’s bombings came less than a week after Trump hosted Sissi at the White House, where both leaders reiterated their resolve to work together to fight extremist groups such as the Islamic State.

In December, the Islamic State asserted responsibility for a bombing at Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral complex that killed at least 25 people and wounded 49. It marked a shift in the Islamic State’s strategy, making Christians a primary target in their campaign against the government.

More recently, hundreds of Christians fled Egypt’s volatile Sinai Peninsula after militants aligned with the Islamic State affiliate there killed several who were attacked in their homes or in drive-by shootings. In a video, the Sinai-based affiliate warned that it would escalate attacks against the nation’s Christians.

Over the past six years, numerous attacks on Christians have left scores dead. On Jan. 1, 2011, the Church of Saints Mark and Peter in Alexandria was bombed, killing 23 people as they left the New Year's Day service. Ten months later, Egypt's security forces killed 28 Christians protesting the demolition of a church, claiming the protesters first attacked them. In 2013, Christians were targeted in a spate of attacks after Morsi was ousted in a military coup.

On Friday, the Catholic archbishop of Egypt, Bishop Emmanuel, told journalists at a news conference that Pope Francis’s visit here was meant to send a message that Egypt was safe.

The pope is scheduled to meet with Sissi and leaders of the country’s Catholic diocese. And in an effort to improve relations between Muslims and Christians, the pope is also expected to meet with the grand imam of Al-Azhar, a centuries-old mosque and university that is widely respected by Sunni Muslims.

On Sunday, residents in Tanta questioned how someone was able to get a bomb into the Mass. Concerned about more attacks on Christians, local authorities appeared to have taken no chances on this holy day. Police officers were present and security appeared tight, witnesses said.

“It is beyond my comprehension how they could leave such a bomb inside the church,” said Laurice Mikhaiel, 60, who lives across from the church. “We churchgoers get inspected as we come in and out. There is always security present.”

Victor Fathy, 42, arrived at the church about a half-hour after the blast. He learned that his cousin, Raouf Salib, a father of two children, was among the dead. Several witnesses, he said, told him that they had seen a suicide bomber. Inside, the “walls were covered with blood and every seat was shattered to pieces.” He looked at the floor.

“There were no holes in it,” he said. “It was not a bomb left under the bench.”

For Faiez, that only raised more questions.

“The head of the security here told me he had seven policemen standing here to protect the church,” Faiez said. “What exactly were they doing? How futile!”

Raghavan reported from Cairo.

Read more:

In post-Arab Spring Egypt, Muslim attacks on Christians are rising

With visit by Egypt’s Sissi, Trump administration signals sharp policy shift

Egypt’s Mubarak freed from detention six years after his overthrow

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news