TANTA, Egypt (AP) — Suicide bombers struck hours apart at two Coptic churches in northern Egypt, killing 44 people and turning Palm Sunday services into scenes of horror and outrage at the government that led the president to call for a three-month state of emergency.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the violence, adding to fears that extremists are shifting their focus to civilians, especially Egypt’s Christian minority.
Late Sunday night, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for a three-month state of emergency. According to Egypt’s constitution, parliament must vote in favor of such a declaration — a virtual certainty since it is packed with supporters of the president. It cannot exceed six months without a referendum to extend it.
The army chief-turned-president also dispatched elite troops across the country to protect key installations and accused unidentified countries of fueling instability, saying that “Egyptians have foiled plots and efforts by countries and fascist, terrorist organizations that tried to control Egypt.”
The attacks highlighted the difficulties facing el-Sissi’s government in protecting Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.
The first bomb exploded inside St. George’s Church in Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78, officials said, overturning pews, shattering windows and staining the whitewashed walls with blood.
“There was a clear lapse in security, which must be tightened from now on to save lives,” he told The Associated Press. The blast appeared to be centered near the altar, he said.
Susan Mikhail, whose apartment balcony across the street has a clear view of the church and its front yard, said the explosion violently shook her building.
“Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes,” she told the AP. The more seriously wounded then were carried out by other survivors and taken to hospitals in private cars, she said.
CCTV images showed a man with a blue sweater tied over his shoulders approaching the main gate to St. Mark’s and then being turned away by security and directed toward a metal detector. He passed a female police officer talking to another woman, and entered a metal detector before an explosion engulfed the area.
The Health Ministry said six Muslims were among the dead in Alexandria.
Pope Tawadros II had held Palm Sunday services at the cathedral and the timing of the attack indicated the bomber had sought to assassinate him.
Pope Francis marked Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square by expressing “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation.”
Magdy George Youssef, a deacon at St. George’s, said the church was almost full when the blast occurred and threw him under a pew.
“All I could think of was to find my wife, and all I could see was smoke, blood and completely charred bodies,” the distraught 58-year-old said. Youssef, who suffered only an injured ear, later found his wife at home, with burns to her face.
“What happened is a dangerous indicator that shows how easy it is to attack a large gathering of people in different places,” said researcher Ishaq Ibrahim with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “There is a complete government failure in taking the IS threat seriously.”
El-Sissi said in a statement that Sunday’s attacks would only strengthen the resolve of Egyptians against “evil forces.” He held an emergency meeting of the National Defense Council, which includes the prime minister, the defense and interior ministers, the speaker of parliament and top army commanders and security chiefs.
President Donald Trump tweeted that he is “so sad to hear of the terrorist attack” against the U.S. ally but added that he has “great confidence” that el-Sissi “will handle the situation properly.” The two leaders met at the White House on April 3.
Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar — the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam — also condemned the attacks, calling them a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.”
An Islamic State affiliate claimed the December bombing as well as a string of killings in the northern Sinai that forced hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas. The militants recently vowed to step up attacks against Christians, whom they regard as infidels.
The Sinai-based IS affiliate has mainly attacked police and soldiers, but has also claimed bombings including the downing of a Russian passenger jetliner in the Sinai in 2015, which killed all 224 people aboard and devastated Egypt’s tourism industry.
Egypt’s Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East and have long complained of discrimination and that the government does not do enough to protect them. Security at churches is routinely increased around religious holidays.
The Copts largely supported the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and incurred the wrath of many of his followers, who attacked churches and other Christian institutions.
Egyptian media had previously reported that the church in Tanta had been targeted before, with a bomb defused there in late March.
As night fell, hundreds of Christians, mostly clad in black, streamed to the church to offer their condolences. Scuffles broke out between the mourners and church volunteers guarding the church’s doors as many pushed and shoved to get in.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael, Brian Rohan, Menna Zaki and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.