by Peter Klapes
On Palm Sunday, Egyptian Coptic Christians were the victims of violent ISIS attacks just weeks before the pope’s visit to the country.
The first explosion occurred on Palm Sunday at the Mar Girgis church in the city of Tanta, claiming 29 lives and injuring 71. Just before 10 a.m. on Sunday April 9, a bomb planted under one of the pews turned the church into a chaotic uproar. On-scene interviews with the churchgoers indicate that a negligent police force may also bear some responsibility. “The police didn’t protect the church on an important day like today,” claimed a local taxi driver. Images and videos from the attack circulated on social media showed blood-stained palm crosses and overturned pews and lecterns.
Three hours later, a second blast occurred at Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox church in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. The Coptic Pope Tawadros II was inside the church at the time of the explosion but was uninjured by the bomb. Three policemen who attempted to prevent the bombers from entering the church were killed. A three-month state of emergency was subsequently announced by Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Haitham al Hariri, a member of the Egyptian parliament and a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance, also voiced concern with the government’s lackluster national security efforts. “Although there was a police constable who hugged the person holding the explosive belt to stop him entering the church, at the same time we cannot ignore the fatal mistakes by the security authorities that let this many attacks happen in a short time,” he said.
Just two weeks later, ISIS also claimed responsibility for an attack on Saint Catherine’s monastery on the southern Sinai peninsula. The attack, in which one police officer died and four others were injured, involved an exchange of gunfire at a nearby checkpoint.
Built in the sixth century, Saint Catherine’s belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003. According to some sources, ISIS’s actions are not only consistent with the group’s continued attacks on Christians but also are an attempt to dampen Egyptian tourism, a major facet of the Egyptian economy. Though it lacks formal jurisdiction, ISIS stands in the way of harmony in the area, especially the northern Sinai cities of Rafah, Arish, and Sheikh Zuweid. Hundreds of Christians have fled the area and Israel has recently barred its citizens from travelling to the area following continued, violent threats from ISIS.
The latest attack comes just ten days before the Pope’s scheduled visit to Egypt, where he will participate in an international peace conference at a major Sunni institute of Islamic learning.