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Palm Sunday IS bombings at Egypt churches kill 44

Kuwait condemns blasts;  Amir sends condolences;  Sisi deploys troops

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / TOPSHOT – A general view shows people looking at the aftermath following a bomb blast which struck worshippers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday at the Mar Girgis Coptic Church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta, 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of Cairo, on April 9, 2017.

TANTA, Egypt: The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for bombing two Egyptian churches as worshippers gathered to mark Palm Sunday, killing at least 44 people in the deadliest attacks on the Coptic Christian minority in recent memory. The attacks followed a Cairo church bombing in December and came weeks before a planned visit by Catholic Pope Francis intended to show support for Egypt’s Christian minority.

The first bombing at the Mar Girgis church in Tanta city north of Cairo killed 27 people, the health ministry said. “I just felt fire grabbing my face. I pushed my brother who was sitting next to me and then I heard people saying: ‘explosion’,” a wounded witness in hospital told state television. Emergency services had scrambled to the scene when another blast rocked Saint Mark’s church in Alexandria where Coptic Pope Tawadros II had been leading a Palm Sunday service.

Seventeen people including four police officers were killed in that attack, which the interior ministry said was caused by a suicide bomber who blew himself up when prevented from entering the church. The ministry said Tawadros was unharmed, and a church official said he left before the explosion. The private CBC Extra channel aired footage of the Alexandria blast, with CCTV showing what appeared to be the church entrance engulfed in a ball of flame and flying concrete moments after a security guard turned away a man. Eyewitnesses said a police officer detected the bomber before he blew himself up.

At least 78 people were wounded in Tanta and 40 in Alexandria, the health ministry said. After the bombings, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ordered military deployments to guard “vital and important infrastructure”, his office said. “The attack…will only harden the determination (of the Egyptian people) to move forward on their trajectory to realize security, stability and comprehensive development,” Sisi said in a statement. State television reported that the interior minister sacked the provincial head of security and replaced him after the attack.

HH the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah yesterday sent a cable to Sisi expressing condolences and sympathy over the victims of the “terrorist attack”.  The Amir voiced Kuwait’s strong condemnation of the heinous criminal act that targeted innocents, and the unity of the Egyptian people, running contrary to all heavenly faiths and human values. HH the Amir reaffirmed Kuwait’s support to Egypt and whatever measures Cairo might take to counter such acts of terrorism that target the country’s security and stability.

HH the Amir reaffirmed Kuwait’s unwavering stance rejecting all forms of terrorism, renewing the country’s support to the international community to fight terror and dry up its financing resources. Offering condolences to families of the blast victims, The Amir wished those wounded in the attack speedy recovery. HH Sheikh Sabah also sent a cable to Coptic Pope Tawadros II expressing condolences and sympathy over the victims of the “terrorist attacks”. HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah sent similar cables.

An official source at the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry yesterday expressed Kuwait’s sharp condemnation of the “terrorist” explosions. The source voiced Kuwait’s absolute solidarity with Egypt in all measures it is taking in order to protect its security and stability, believing that Egypt is well aware of the “criminal” goals of such “disgraceful acts” which undermine national unity and the social fabric. The source reiterated Kuwait’s principled positions based on rejecting all forms and manifestations of violence and terrorism, and calling for more international efforts to uproot this serious phenomenon. It concluded by offering heartfelt condolences to the Egyptian leadership, government, people and victims’ families and wished the swift recovery of the injured.

A UN Security Council statement condemned the bombings as “heinous” and “cowardly”. Egyptian officials denounced the violence as an attempt to sow divisions in Egypt, and Francis sent his “deep condolences” to Tawadros. IS claimed its “squads” carried out both attacks, in a statement by its self-styled Amaq news agency published on social media. There were bloodstains on the floor of the church in Tanta, next to shredded wooden benches.

On March 29, the Mar Girgis church’s Facebook page said a “suspicious” device had been found outside the building that security services removed. “I heard the blast and came running. I found people torn up… some people, only half of their bodies remained,” said Nabil Nader, who lives in front of the Tanta church. Worshippers had been celebrating Palm Sunday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, marking Jesus’ (PBUH) triumphant entrance to Jerusalem.

Copts, who make up about one tenth of Egypt’s population of more than 92 million and who celebrate Easter next weekend, have been targeted by several attacks in recent months. Jihadists and Islamists accuse Copts of supporting the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, which ushered in a deadly crackdown on his supporters. In December, a suicide bombing claimed by IS killed 29 worshippers in a Cairo church adjacent to the papal seat. The group later released a video threatening Egypt’s Christians with more attacks.

A spate of jihadist-linked attacks in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, including the murder of a Copt in the city of El Arish whose house was also burned, led some Coptic families to flee. About 250 Christians took refuge in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia after IS released a video in February calling for attacks on the minority. US President Donald Trump led international condemnation of yesterday’s attacks. “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,” he tweeted.

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail condemned the attack, stressing Egypt’s determination to “eliminate terrorism”. The Cairo-based Al-Azhar, an influential Sunni Muslim authority, said it aimed to “destabilize security and… the unity of Egyptians”. Egypt’s Copts have endured successive attacks since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013. More than 40 churches were attacked nationwide in the two weeks after the deadly dispersal by security forces of two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo on Aug 14 that year, Human Rights Watch said.

Sisi, who as then army chief helped remove Morsi, has defended his security forces and accused jihadists of attacking Copts in order to divide the country. In Oct 2011, almost 30 people – mostly Coptic Christians – were killed after the army charged at a protest outside the state television building in Cairo to denounce the torching of a church in southern Egypt. A few months earlier, the unclaimed New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic church killed more than 20 people in second city Alexandria. – Agencies

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