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Dozens Killed As 2 Attacks Target Coptic Christians In Egypt

People react at the site of a bomb attack which struck worshippers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday at the Mar Gerges church in Tanta, Egypt.
AFP/Getty Images
People react at the site of a bomb attack which struck worshippers gathering to celebrate Palm Sunday at the Mar Gerges church in Tanta, Egypt.

Updated at 4:16 p.m. ET

At least 44 people were killed and more than 100 injured after suspected suicide bombings in two different Egyptian cities at Coptic Christian churches Sunday.

The interior ministry said one of the explosions was a bombing in Mar Gerges church in Tanta, a city in the north of Egypt in the Nile Delta, located between Cairo and Alexandria. The church was full at the time with worshippers observing Coptic Christian Palm Sunday.

Health ministry spokesman Khaled Mujahed told Egyptian state television that at least 27 people were killed and 78 injured.

Just hours later and about 80 miles away in Alexandria, a second explosion outside the Mar Markas church killed 16 people and injured 41 others, Mujahed confirmed to state television.

NPR's Jane Arraf adds that the Coptic Pope was in the building, but unharmed by the attack.

Reporter Bel Trew, Egypt correspondent for the Times of London, told NPR that the pope was leading prayers when the suspected bomber attempted to enter the church. Security forces managed to keep the attacker outside, but at least three officers were killed.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both explosions through its semi-official Amaq news agency.

In a television address, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi announced his intentions to declare a state of emergency.

"A series of steps will be taken, most importantly, the announcement of a state of emergency for three months after legal and constitution steps are taken," el-Sissi said during the live address.

Jane explains the announcement to our Newscast unit:

"...el-Sissi told Egyptians he was deploying more soldiers to protect public buildings and churches after the attacks.

"And he said he plans to impose a three-month state of emergency across the country. Parliament would have to approve the measure, which is already in place in Sinai province.

"Previous emergency measures have allowed police to arrest people without charge, banned large gatherings and tightened censorship."

Condemnations of attacks came from the region and further abroad.

Both Israel and the Gaza's Hamas leadership decried the attacks.

Pope Francis, in his Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican, mentioned the bombings and people who "suffer from wars and terrorism, from interests that are armed and ready to strike." He is scheduled to visit Egypt at the end of April.

And President Trump tweeted: "So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns," while expressing his "great confidence" in el-Sissi. Trump had hosted el-Sissi at the White House last week.

Christians in Egypt have been targeted before in attacks by Islamist extremists. In December, 25 people died when a bomb exploded during Sunday mass in Cairo, as NPR's Bill Chappell reported. At the time it was "the deadliest attack on Egypt's Christian minority in years," he notes.

Two years ago, ISIS released a video appearing to show a mass beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.

And on New Year's Day in 2011, a bombing at a church in Alexandria killed at least 21 people, as Jane noted.

Christians make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt's predominantly Muslim population and most Christians in Egypt are Coptic Christians, of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Coptic Christians observe Palm Sunday and other religious holidays on a different schedule because they follow the Julian calendar, not the more widely accepted Gregorian calendar. Copts trace their ancestry back to the founding of the Church of Alexandria by St. Mark and are one of the oldest denominations in the Christian faith. The word "Copt" comes from the an ancient Pharaonic language and roughly translates to "Egyptian." The Coptic Church, with its own clergy and a distinct pope, holds similar beliefs with the other Orthodox churches, though it diverges in some teachings, most predominantly concerning the nature of Christ.

Ahmed Abuhamda contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.

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James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
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