A STATE of emergency has been declared in Egypt after 44 people were killed in bombings targeting Egyptian Coptic churches on Sunday. In addition, more than 100 people were injured in the attacks. Muslim police officers were among the dead.
The first attack took place inside Mar Girgis, also known as St George’s, in Tanta, north of Cairo. It is reported that a bomber evaded security measures, including a metal detector, and blew himself up near the altar.
Hours later, a suicide bombing occurred in front of St Mark’s, Alexandria, the oldest church in Egypt, where the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, was presiding. He was unhurt. Footage shows a man being directed into a metal detector at the church gates and pausing to be searched by a police officer, before apparently detonating his device.
In a statement, Pope Tawadros said: “These acts will not harm the unity and cohesion of the people.”
The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said that he hoped that “the perpetrators of this horrific terrorist act will be swiftly identified and brought to justice”.
A priest who had been celebrating the liturgy at Mar Girgis, the Revd Daniel Maher, told The New York Times that he had lost his son, Bishoy, who was to get married later this year, in the attack.
Shortly after the attacks, the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ordered the army to be deployed across the country, and declared that a state of emergency lasting three months would be declared “after legal and constitution steps are taken”.
IS claimed responsibility for both attacks. The first funerals were held on Sunday night. Mourners gave anguished testimonies to reporters, condemning the failure of the state to protect the Christian community, which finds itself increasingly besieged in Egypt.
The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, prayed for Coptic clergy in Egypt “who continue to serve their spiritual children faithfully and diligently at a time in which their leadership and pastoral care is needed by our whole community. We also pray for our Coptic Orthodox sisters and brothers, who continue to be resilient in the face of ongoing and escalating attacks, and who resist the urge to react vengefully or reciprocally. . .
“As we celebrate Palm Sunday today, and Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, we now also mark the entry of those who have passed today into the heavenly Jerusalem.”
Last month, Bishop Angaelos warned of the “deadly, daily” persecution of Christians by terrorists in Egypt (News, 3 March). Since the killing of 29 people in a blast at St Peter’s Coptic Church, Cairo, in December, more than 40 people had been killed before this weekend. Several hundred families fled Sinai last month after seven people were shot or beheaded in separate attacks by Islamic State.
In February, Christian Solidarity Worldwide issued a report that described how human rights in Egypt had “worsened progressively”, and criticised the failure of security services “to provide basic protection or to undertake investigations” into attacks on Christians and their property (News, 24 February).
Pope Francis, who is due to visit Egypt at the end of the month, prayed on Sunday that God would “convert the hearts of people who sow terror, violence, and death”. During a meeting with four UK Muslim leaders last week, he was urged to use his visit to raise the persecution of Christians.
Imam Ibrahim Mogra, an alumnus of Al-Azhar University and assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, told The Tablet that the Pope must “raise the questions of Christian minorities in Muslim countries. And the scholars at Al-Azhar, and the Grand Imams and the Grand Muftis and their team must speak out against the mistreatment of minorities, particularly Christians in Egypt and in other parts of the Middle East.” The situation for Christians had “deteriorated”, he said.
In 2011, Al-Azhar broke off relations with the Holy See after Pope Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, called for better protection for the country’s Christian minority, in the wake of an earlier attack on a church in Alexandria.
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Professor Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb, said on Sunday that the attacks were a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents”. In 2015, he and the Archbishop of Canterbury signed a pact to counter extremism and terrorism (News, 12 June).
Attacks have continued, and Christian Solidarity has warned repeatedly of a “cycle of violence and impunity”.
Jamie Eyre, director of programmes and partnerships at Embrace the Middle East, remarked: “There was a huge wave of optimism from Egyptian Christians when President Sisi came to power, which I think we often found difficult to hear in the West. . . The recent attacks have undermined this, but, when I talk to people, that hope for a better future is still there, albeit increasingly tempered with realism.
“There are sections of the population, however small, who wish to do Christians harm, and they are not always easy to stop. The challenge for the authorities will be to back up their strong rhetoric of support for the Christian community with tangible ways to improve the situation and to build a tolerant and open Egypt for all Egyptians.”