The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for bombing two Egyptian churches on Sunday in the deadliest attacks on the country’s Christian minority in recent memory.
“Islamic State squads carried out the attacks on two churches in Tanta and Alexandria,” said the group’s Amaq News Agency in a statement published on social media accounts.
The two bombing attacks, in which at least 37 people were killed, appeared to be coordinated, with the first going off at a Coptic church north of Cairo Sunday morning, followed by a second explosion at a church in the coastal city of Alexandria in the afternoon.
According to the Health Ministry, at least 11 people were killed and 33 wounded when a car bomb detonated outside the St. Mark’s Church in the coastal city of Alexandria.
Egypt’s interior ministry said that a suicide bomber was behind the second blast. The bomber tried to storm the church where Coptic Pope Tawadros II was leading a Palm Sunday service but blew himself up when police prevented him from entering, the ministry said in a statement.
A Coptic Church official said Tawadros had left the church before the blast.
The earlier blast at a church in Tanta, north of Cairo, killed 26 people and wounded some 71, officials said, in an apparent attack on Coptic worshipers.
The two attacks are the latest in a series of assaults on Egypt’s Christian minority, which has been repeatedly targeted by Islamic extremists. It comes just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit the Arab world’s most populous country.
Pope Francis decried the first bombing, expressing “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation.” Word of the bombing came as Francis himself was marking Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square.
Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar — the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam — likewise condemned the attack, calling it a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.”
The attack adds to fears that IS’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, which has long been battling security forces, may shift its focus to civilians.
IS claimed last December’s bombing of a Cairo church that killed 29 people, and threatened further attacks on Egyptian Christians.
Egypt’s Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East, accounting for around 10 percent of Egypt’s 92 million people, and have long complained of discrimination.
The Copts were largely supportive of the military overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, and incurred the wrath of many Islamists, who attacked churches and other Christian institutions after his ouster.