A bombing at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 people and wounded 49, many of them women and children attending Sunday mass, in the deadliest attack on Egypt’s Christian minority in years.
The attack comes as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi battles against an Islamist insurgency in Northern Sinai, led by the Egyptian branch of Islamic State. The militant group has also carried out deadly attacks in Cairo and has urged its supporters to launch attacks around the world in recent weeks as it goes on the defensive in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Islamic State supporters celebrated the attack on social media.
“God bless the person who did this blessed act,” wrote one supporter of the militant group on Telegram.
The explosion took place in the St. Peter and St. Paul chapel adjoining the main hall of St Mark’s Cathedral, the largest in the metropolis of 20 million, where security is normally tight. The chapel floor and pews were covered with debris, dust and sticky patches of blood.
The attack targeted one of the most symbolic religious sites for Copts, an ethno-religious group centered in Egypt.
The Coptic Orthodox Church released a statement on its Facebook page, saying in part:
“As we are bereaved by this violence and terrorism that attacks worshipers, we pray for these martyrs and for the wounded. The Egyptian church stresses on persevering national unity that keeps all Egyptians on Egypt’s blessed land.”
Security sources said at least six children were among the dead, with the blast detonating on the side of the church normally used by women.
They said the explosion was caused by a device containing at least 12 kg (26 pounds) of TNT. Police were investigating claims by witnesses that the bomb was concealed in the handbag of a woman who had placed it on the floor of the church and left.
Police and armored vehicles rushed to the area, as dozens of protesters gathered outside the compound demanding revenge. Scuffles broke out with police.
A woman sitting near the cathedral in traditional long robes shouted “kill them, kill the terrorists, what are you waiting for?…. Why are you leaving them to bomb our homes?”
Though Egypt’s Coptic Christians have traditionally been supporters of the government, angry crowds turned their ire against Sisi, saying his government had failed to protect them.
“As long as Egyptian blood is cheap, down, down with any president…” they chanted. Others chanted “the people demand the fall of the regime”, the rallying cry of the 2011 uprising that helped end Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Sisi’s office condemned the attack as an act of terrorism and declared three days of national mourning. Al Azhar, Egypt’s main Islamic center of learning, also denounced the attacks.
The Grand Mufti, the highest official of religious law in Egypt, condemned the “deplorable terrorist attack” on the cathedral.
“Attacking churches whether by demolition, bombing, killing those inside, or terrifying … secure people are prohibited in Islamic Sharia,” Sheikh Shawky Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam said.
He called for unity against “black terrorism that tries to instigate sectarianism and sedition among the two wings of Egypt, Muslims and Christians, in a bid to weaken the nation.”
The Grand Mufti also extended his condolences to Pope Tawadros ll of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
Orthodox Copts, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, are the Middle East’s biggest Christian community. They base their theology on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, who introduced Christianity to Egypt, according to St. Takla Church in Alexandria, the capital of Coptic Christianity.
Copts face regular attack by Muslim neighbors, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or the construction of church.
The last major attack on a church took place as worshippers left a new year’s service in Alexandria weeks before the start of the 2011 uprising. At least 21 people were killed.
Egypt’s Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities. In 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya were killed by Islamic State.
Pope Tawadros II cut short a visit to Greece after learning of the attack. Coptic officials said they would not allow the bombing to create sectarian differences.
“We will not allow the terrorist to threaten our national unity with Muslims,” Hani Bakhoum, undersecretary of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate told Egyptian state television.
The explosion came just two days after two bombs killed six police officers and a civilian in Giza’s Haram district, on the street leading to the city’s famed pyramids.