What just happened?
Two bombings occurred during Palm Sunday services in Coptic churches in Egypt yesterday. The blasts killed 47 and injured about 100 others. As the The New York Times notes, “the attacks constituted one of the deadliest days of violence against Christians in Egypt in decades.”
The first attack at St. George’s Coptic church in Tanta, a town north of the capital city of Cairo, killed 27 people and wounded 78 others. An explosive device had been planted under a seat in the main prayer hall. Most of those injured, according to an eyewitness, appeared to be priests and members of the choir.
A few hours later a suicide bomber blew himself up at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Church in Alexandria, where Coptic patriarch Pope Tawadros II led a Palm Sunday service inside. According to CNN, police officers posted outside the church stopped a man wearing an explosive belt from entering the church. At least two officers, a man and a woman, were killed, along with civilians and other police staff. In that attack, 16 people were killed and 41 others wounded. (It’s unclear where the other four deaths occurred.)
Shortly after the attacks, a local Egypt group affiliated with Islamic State took credit for the bombings.
Who is Islamic State?
Islamic State is the name of the group formerly called ISIS (aka ISIL or Daesh) that currently controls about 23,300 square miles and 6 million people in Syria and Iraq. They are the group that during the Iraq War was often referred to as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Islamic State is an abbreviation of “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (the group is actually called “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” but most western media translate “Levant” as “Syria.”). The group claims it is an independent state with claims to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It was established in the early years of the Iraq War and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004.
IS has been responsible for the persecution of Christians and other minority religious groups in several countries, but mostly in Iraq and Syria.
Who are the Coptic Christians?
The word Copt is derived from the Greek word for Egyptian. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, it became restricted to those Egyptians adhering to Christianity.
Copts believe that their church was founded when the apostle Mark visited Egypt around AD 50, during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius. St. Mark the Evangelist is regarded as the first Pope of Alexandria, the first pontiff of the Coptic church.
Approximately 10 percent of the Egyptian population—roughly 9 million people—are Christians. Egypt’s Copts are considered the largest community of Christians in the Middle East.
The majority of Copts belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. About 800,000 are divided between the Catholic and various Protestant churches.
Why is Islamic State targeting Egyptian Christians?
IS targets the Egyptian Christians simply because they are Christians in areas where they have influence. Morning Star News reports that IS released a video in February promising to rid Egypt of “idolaters.” The video features a recording of the suicide statement of a terrorist suspected in a December bombing of the Al Boutrosya Church who says that attack was “only the first.”
“There will be more operations in the near future, if God wills it, as you are our first target and our preferred target in our war,” he said. “You followers of the cross, you traitors of all ties—know that warriors of the Islamic State are watching you, and our blessed invasion won’t be our last on you. Because what’s coming is worse and hotter than boiling oil, so wait and see, we will be victorious.”
Since December IS has bombed one other church and murdered several dozen Copts.
What has been the reaction of Egypt?
In response to the attacks, Egypt President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has announced a three-month state of emergency. As the BBC explains, if al-Sisi’s plan is approved by the parliament, the measure will allow authorities to make arrests without warrants and search people’s homes.
The president had previously ordered the deployment of the military across the country to protect “vital and important infrastructure.”
What has been the reaction from the United States?
The U.S. State Department released the following statement in response to the church bombings:
The United States condemns in the strongest terms the barbaric attacks on Christian places of worship in Tanta and Alexandria that killed dozens of innocent people and injured many more on this holy day of Palm Sunday. We express our condolences to the families and friends of the victims and wish a quick recovery for all those injured.
The United States will continue to support Egypt’s security and stability in its efforts to defeat terrorism.