At least 37 people were killed and scores injured in bomb blasts at two Coptic churches in northern Egypt on Sunday.
The first bomb went off during a Palm Sunday service at the Mar Girgis Coptic Church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta, 120 kilometres north of Cairo, and was followed hours later by blast in front of St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria.
More than 50 people were injured in the attack in Tanta and at least 35 in Alexandria, where the death toll was 11, health officials said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either blast.
The attacks came a week before Easter and weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit Egypt on April 28-29.
Speaking before the second bombing, the pope condemned the attack in Tanta and expressed his "deepest condolences" to all Egyptians and to the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, who had led the Sunday service at St Mark’s Cathedral hours before the blast there.
"I pray for the dead and the victims. May the Lord convert the hearts of people who sow terror, violence and death and even the hearts of those who produce and traffic in weapons," Francis said at the end of his Palm Sunday Mass in St Peter’s Square.
The UAE strongly condemned the attack and offered condolences for the victims.
The bombings were the latest in a series of attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority, which makes up about 10 per cent of the population and has been repeatedly targeted by militant extremists.
A local ISIL affiliate claimed a suicide bombing at a church in Cairo in December that killed around 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the restive Sinai Peninsula that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country.
A militant group called Liwa Al Thawra claimed responsibility for an April 1 bomb attack targeting a police training centre in Tanta, which wounded 16 people. The group, believed to be linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, has mainly targeted security forces and distanced itself from attacks on Christians.
Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of extremist militancy since the military removed president Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood from office in 2013.
Egypt’s Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since ISIL spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities. In 2015, ISIL militants killed 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya.
Copts face regular attacks by Muslim neighbours, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or the construction of church.
* AP *AFP *Reuters