Church attacks in Egypt undercut president’s promise of security

TANTA, Egypt—Rattling a country already wrestling with a faltering economy and deepening political malaise, two suicide bombings that killed 44 people at Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday raised the specter of increased sectarian bloodshed led by Islamic State (IS) militants.

The attacks constituted one of the deadliest days of violence against Christians in Egypt in decades and presented a challenge to the authority of the country’s leader, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who promptly declared a three-month state of emergency. Security is the central promise of el-Sissi, a strongman leader who returned last Friday from a triumphant visit to the United States, where President Donald J. Trump hailed him as a bulwark against Islamist violence.

Trump made it clear that he was willing to overlook the record of mass detention, torture and extrajudicial killings during el-Sissi’s rule in favor of his ability to combat the IS and defend minority Christians.

Last Sunday el-Sissi found himself back on the defensive, deploying troops to protect churches across the country weeks before a planned visit by Pope Francis.

El-Sissi rushed to assure minority Christians, who have traditionally been among his most vocal supporters and now fear that he cannot protect them against extremists.

“I won’t say those who fell are Christian or Muslim,” el-Sissi said in a speech shown on state television last Sunday night. “I will say that they’re Egyptian.”

One attack last Sunday struck at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Church in Alexandria, where the bomber blew himself up at the church gates as the Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, led a Palm Sunday service inside. The other struck in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, where the attacker slipped past security to the front pews of the church and blew himself up, turning a religious celebration of joy into a ghastly scene of bloodshed and death.

The IS, which claimed responsibility for the attacks through its Aamaq news agency, signaled last December its intention to step up attacks on Christians when a suicide bombing at a major Cairo church killed at least 28 people. In February hundreds of Christians fled their homes in north Sinai after a concerted campaign of assassination and intimidation in the area.

Although el-Sissi had already stepped up security at churches, Sunday’s bloodshed underscores the difficulty of stopping suicide attacks. More starkly, it highlighted the failure of Egypt’s powerful intelligence agencies to anticipate a coordinated wave of devastating attacks.

The explosion in Tanta, about 50 miles north of Cairo, occurred at Saint George’s church, where authorities had already sealed the main door to prevent attacks. The bomber managed to slip past security measures, including a metal detector, at one of the side doors, and blew himself up near the altar. At least 27 people were killed and 78 others injured, officials said.

Children, their parents and deacons—lay Christians who help with the service—accounted for many of the dead.

Hours later, victims’ relatives stood silently outside the city morgue, waiting to identify and collect the remains of their loved ones. The Rev. Daniel Maher, a priest who had been leading the Mass, was still wearing his bloodstained white vestments. The priest said he had not been harmed in the attack, but he lost his son, Bishoy, who was to get married later this year.

“What can I say? Thank God,” he said in a cracking voice.

Next to the priest, a young woman sat on the sidewalk, sobbing as a group of women tried to comfort her. “God, what did he do to deserve this?” she asked, bemoaning the loss of her own loved one.

The second attack occurred just over two hours later in the coastal city of Alexandria, where a suicide bomber tried to enter Saint Mark’s Cathedral.

Surveillance footage, later aired on a private Egyptian television channel, showed a man wearing a bulky jacket being directed into a metal detector at the church gates, where he paused to be searched by a police officer.

A moment later, a giant blast rang out. At least 17 people were killed, including a district police chief and a police officer, and an additional 48 were wounded, according to the Health Ministry.

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