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Sun 9 Apr 2017 06:41 PM

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Dozens killed in two Egyptian church bombings on Palm Sunday

GCC countries widely condemn the attacks

Dozens killed in two Egyptian church bombings on Palm Sunday
People gathering outside the Mar Girgis Coptic Church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta, 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of Cairo, after a bomb blast struck worshippers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday on April 9, 2017. (Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Back-to-back bombings at two Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday killed more than three dozen people in the deadliest assault on the country’s Coptic Christian community in years. One of the targets was the seat of the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria.

ISIL claimed the attacks on the Mar Girgis church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and St. Mark’s cathedral in Alexandria, according to the US-based SITE Intel Group, which monitors jihadist channels on social media. At least 27 people were reported killed in the Tanta bombing, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Mogahed said.

At least 13 others died in Alexandria, and 40 were wounded, Health Minister Ahmed Emad El Din Rady told reporters. One of the fatalities was a police officer who tried to prevent a suspected suicide bomber from entering the church. Pope Tawadros II, who had led Palm Sunday Mass in Alexandria, wasn’t hurt, state-run media said.

The attacks underscored the challenges confronting the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as it tries to attract international investors to revive an economy battered by years of unrest. In his meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House last week, the Egyptian leader focused on the need to combat terrorism while also pressing for continued U.S. aid to his nation.

Egyptian authorities have struggled to rein in a wave of attacks, most of them carried out by militants affiliated with ISIL in northern Sinai. The jihadists have also struck in urban centres and targeted Coptic Christians, widely estimated to make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 92 million residents.

‘Most Dangerous’

“This type of attack is the most dangerous, since it inflicts maximum amount of damage on human lives, disrupts tourism, and shakes the image of the state,” said  Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates. “It turns the conflict from a confrontation in the desert to a civil conflict in the heart of Egypt.”

“This attack is likely to embolden the government, and provide it with even more legitimacy in its crackdown on Islamists and on dissent,” he said. 

Egyptian shares dropped after the bombings, with the benchmark EGX 30 Index retreating 1.6 percent, the most since Feb. 27, at the close in Cairo.

Egyptians gather at near a church in Alexandria after a bomb blast struck worshippers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday on April 9, 2017.  (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

El Sisi convened an emergency session of the national security council. This terrorism “will not undermine the will of Egyptians in facing the forces of evil, but will make them more determined to overcome hardship,” he said in a statement from the presidency.

Mounting Attacks

Copts have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation and have accused authorities of failing to protect them against extremist violence. They became some of El-Sisi’s strongest supporters after the military-backed ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013. Yet while the president has been quick to respond to violence against Christians and to call for a more moderate interpretation of Islam, the mounting number of attacks on the Coptic community has called its support for him into question. 

A deadly bombing at a Cairo cathedral in December, claimed by ISIL’s local affiliate, killed at least 25 worshipers. Egyptian media have also reported that hundreds of Christians have fled northern Sinai after being singled out by the jihadist group, which is based there.

The latest bombing “won’t be the last terrorist attack because the state fights terrorism but doesn’t fight terrorism-inspiring ideas, which is the main cause of the problem,” billionaire Naguib Sawiris wrote on his official Twitter account.

Papal Visit

El-Sisi’s visit to the Trump White House was seen as a chance to mend ties with the U.S.: Trump is regarded as less critical than Barack Obama of Egypt’s crackdown on Islamists, which killed hundreds and jailed thousands more. Egypt hoped to repair another set of relations this month with the arrival of Pope Francis, whose predecessor Benedict XVI demanded that authorities protect the Christians of the Middle East after about two dozen worshippers were killed at a 2011 bombing at an Alexandria church. 

El-Sisi “will continue to be seen as Washington’s only option in Egypt despite very little proof that his counter-terrorism campaign resulted in anything else than spiraling violence and growing human rights abuse,” said Michael Horowitz, director of Intelligence at the political risk consultancy Prime Source.

“An attack in mainland Egypt would be a way to show that the group is still able to operate -- despite this growing pressure -- and embarrass the Egyptian government after Sisi’s visit to Washington and before the Pope’s visit in the coming weeks,” he said, referring to ISIL

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