ISIS has claimed responsibility for two separate Palm Sunday bombing attacks on Christian churches in Egypt killing at least 37 and injuring more than 100.
The first blast happened at St. George church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, where at least 26 people were killed and 71 others wounded, officials said.
Less than two months ago, ISIS released a video vowing to target Egyptian Christians, whom they called their “favorite prey,” showing images of a suicide bomber who killed nearly 30 people inside a packed Cairo church in December.
“God gave orders to kill every infidel,” one of the militants carrying an AK-47 assault rifle says in the 20-minute video.
In the latest attack, television footage showed the inside of the church, where a large number of people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.
A second explosion was later reported at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, leaving at least 11 dead and 35 injured. The attack came just after Pope Tawadros II – leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria – finished services, but aides told local media that he was unharmed.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks via its Aamaq media agency, after the group recently released a video vowing to step up attacks against Christians, whom the group describes as “infidels” empowering the West against Muslims.
The blasts came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country.
“Either a bomb was planted or someone blew himself up,” provincial governor Ahmad Deif told the state-run Nile TV channel, Sky News reported.
The attack in Tanta was the latest in a series of assaults on Egypt’s Christian minority, which makes up around 10 percent of the population and has been repeatedly targeted by Islamic extremists.
Pope Francis decried the bombings, expressing “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation.” Word of the attacks came as Francis was holding Palm Sunday services in St. Peter’s Square.
Both Israel and the Islamic Hamas movement ruling neighboring Gaza also condemned the bombings.
The bombings add to fears that Islamic extremists who have long been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula are shifting their focus to civilians.
Following is a timeline of recent major attacks against Egypt’s Coptic Christians over the past year:
April 9: Twin bombings, at least one by a suicide bomber, hit churches in the coastal city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta. At least 43 people were killed and scores of worshipers injured on the Palm Sunday attack, which narrowly missed a ceremony presided over by Pope Tawadros II in Alexandria’s St. Mark’s cathedral.
February: Hundreds of Egyptian Christians flee their homes in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, fearing attacks by Islamic State militants. The group’s North Sinai affiliate had killed at least seven Coptic Christians in the restive peninsula in less than a month.
December 2016: A bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo claimed by ISIS kills 30 people and injuries dozens during Sunday Mass in one of the deadliest attacks carried out against the religious minority in recent memory. The high death toll serves as a grim reminder of the difficulties of Egypt’s struggle to restore security and stability after nearly six years of turmoil.
July 2016: Pope Tawadros II says that since 2013 there were 37 sectarian attacks on Christians in Egypt, nearly one incident a month. A Muslim mob stabs 27-year old Coptic Christian Fam Khalaf to death in the southern City of Minya over a personal feud.
May 2016: A Muslim mob ransacks and torches seven Christian homes in Minya after rumor spread that a Christian man had an affair with a Muslim woman. The mother of the aforementioned man was stripped naked by the mob to humiliate her.