EGYPT’S president has called for a three-month state of emergency after suicide bombers struck hours apart at two Coptic churches, killing 45 people and turning Palm Sunday services into scenes of horror and outrage at the government.

The Daesh terror group claimed responsibility for the violence, adding to fears that extremists are shifting their focus to civilians, especially Egypt’s Christian minority.

The attacks in the northern cities of Tanta and Alexandria that injured 126 people came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit.

Loading article content

Families have been burying their dead. In footage broadcast on several Egyptian channels, women wailed as caskets marked with the word “martyr” were brought into the Mar Amina church in the coastal city of Alexandria.

Coptic priests, boy scouts, and mourners carrying flowers joined a procession into the church, the pace set by a beat of snare drums.

At least 17 people were killed at St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt.

Another suicide attack killed at least 28 people inside St George’s Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, the Health Ministry said.

Reverend Danial Maher, of the Tanta church, lost his 23-year-old son Beshoy, who was among six deacons killed in the attack.

He recalled watching his son wearing white vestments and singing at the service, saying: “He was like an angel.” Pictures of Maher, sitting helplessly in blood-stained vestments after the attack were widely circulated online. He buried his son late on Sunday.

The attacks led President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to call for a state of emergency, amid fears that Daesh militants, who have been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula for years, are shifting their focus to Egypt’s Coptic minority, one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East.

It was the single deadliest day for Christians in decades and the worst since a bombing at a Cairo church in December killed 30 people.

Since then a series of killings in the Sinai have caused hundreds to flee to safer areas.

The state of emergency will likely allow for arrests without warrants, swifter prosecution of suspects, and special fast-track courts.

Authorities have been waging a sweeping crackdown on dissent for years, however, so it was unclear if anything would change on the ground.

The Palm Sunday attacks, the single deadliest day for Christians in decades, rattled the community and prompted messages of support from abroad, including from Pope Francis, who is to visit Egypt in the coming weeks, and President Donald Trump.

Israel meanwhile closed its Taba border crossing to Egypt after its anti-terrorism office warned of an “imminent” militant attack there, underlining fears of more violence. The closure comes hours before the start of the Passover holiday.

Southern Sinai, which has seen little of the violence plaguing the northern part of the peninsula, is a popular tourist destination.

Pope Tawadros, the leader of the Coptic church who will meet Francis on April 28 and 29, was in the Alexandria cathedral at the time of the bombing but was unhurt, the Interior Ministry said. The timing of the attack indicated the bomber had sought to assassinate him.

As well as declaring the state of emergency, army chief-turned-president el-Sissi also sent elite troops across the country to protect key installations and accused unidentified countries of fuelling instability, saying “Egyptians have foiled plots and efforts by countries and fascist, terrorist organisations that tried to control Egypt”.

The attacks highlighted the difficulties facing the government in protecting Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population.

“Where is the government?” screamed Maged Saleh, who rushed to the church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta where his mother escaped the carnage. “There is no government.”

The first bomb exploded inside St George’s Church in Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78, overturning pews, shattering windows and staining the whitewashed walls with blood.

Video from inside the church broadcast by CBC TV showed people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers. Several doors had been blown off.

Susan Mikhail, who has an apartment opposite the church, said: “Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes.”

A few hours later, a suicide bomber rushed towards St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, killing at least 17 people and wounding 48.

CCTV images showed a man with a blue jumper tied over his shoulders approaching the main gate to St Mark’s and then being turned away by security and directed towards a metal detector.

He passed a woman police officer talking to another woman and entered a metal detector before an explosion engulfed the area.

The Health Ministry said six Muslims were among the dead in Alexandria.

Pope Francis marked Palm Sunday in St Peter’s Square by expressing “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation”.

Magdy George Youssef, 58, a deacon at St George’s, said the church was almost full when the blast occurred and threw him under a pew.

“All I could think of was to find my wife, and all I could see was smoke, blood and completely charred bodies,” he said. He later found his wife at home with burns to her face.

Daesh said two Egyptian suicide bombers named Abu Ishaq al Masri and Abu al Baraa al Masri carried out the church attacks and vowed to continue attacks against Christians.

“What happened is a dangerous indicator that shows how easy it is to attack a large gathering of people in different places,” said Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

El-Sissi said Sunday’s attacks would only strengthen the resolve of Egyptians against “evil forces” and held an emergency meeting of the National Defence Council.

Regional police chief Brig Gen Hossam Elddin Khalifa was fired over the Tanta bombing, state-run newspaper al-Ahram said.

Trump tweeted that he was “so sad to hear of the terrorist attack” against the American ally but added that he had “great confidence” that El-Sissi “will handle the situation properly”.

The two leaders met at the White House on April 3.

Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the leading centre of learning in Sunni Islam, also condemned the attacks, calling them a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents”.

Both Israel and the Islamic Hamas movement ruling neighbouring Gaza condemned the bombings.

A Daesh affiliate claimed responsibility for the December bombing as well as a string of killings in northern Sinai that forced hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas.

The militants recently vowed to step up attacks against Christians, whom they regard as infidels.

Egypt has struggled to combat the wave of militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

Egypt’s Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East and have long complained of discrimination, saying the government does not do enough to protect them.

Security at churches is routinely increased around religious holidays.