BOMB BLAST KILL AT LEAST 22 IN PALM SUNDAY PRAYER IN EGYPT
A bomb blast at a church north of Cairo killed at least 22 people and wounded dozens who had gathered for Palm Sunday mass, officials said, in the latest apparent attack on Egyptâ€™s Coptic Christians. Crucifixes and icons are seen at the heavily damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh (also known as Hamdaniya), some 30 kilometres east of Mosul, on April 9, 2017, as Christians mark the first Palm Sunday event in the town since Iraqi forces recaptured it from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. Qaraqosh, with an overwhelmingly Christian population of around 50,000 before the jihadists took over the area in August 2014, was the largest Christian town in Iraq. Some 71 people were wounded in the blast, which struck at a Coptic Church in the Nile Delta City of Tanta, 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of Cairo, according to a health ministry toll. Images broadcast by private television stations showed bloodstains smearing the whitewashed walls of the church next to shredded wooden benches. Palm Sunday is one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, marking the triumphant entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem. â€œThe explosion took place in the front rows, near the altar, during the mass,â€ General Tarek Atiya, the deputy to Egyptâ€™s interior minister in charge of relations with the media, told AFP. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Sundayâ€™s blast. Copts, who make up about one tenth of Egyptâ€™s population of more than 92 million and who celebrate Easter next weekend, have been targeted by several attacks in recent months. Pope Francis is due to visit Cairo on April 28-29 to show solidarity with Egyptâ€™s Christian community. Jihadists and Islamists accuse Copts of supporting the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, which ushered in a deadly crackdown on his supporters. In December, a suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State group killed 29 worshippers during Sunday mass in Cairo. The bombing of the church within a compound that also holds the seat of the Coptic papacy was the deadliest attack against the minority in recent memory. A spate of jihadist-linked attacks in Egyptâ€™s restive Sinai Peninsula, including the murder of a Copt in the city of El Arish whose house was also burned, have led some Coptic families to flee their homes. About 250 Christians took refuge in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya after IS released a video in February calling for attacks on the religious minority. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid called Sundayâ€™s bombing â€œa failed attempt against our unityâ€. â€œTerrorism hits Egypt again, this time on Palm Sunday,â€ he tweeted. â€“ String of attacks â€“ Prime Minister Sherif Ismail also condemned Sundayâ€™s apparent attack, stressing Egyptâ€™s determination to â€œeliminate terrorismâ€. The Cairo-based Al-Azhar, an influential Sunni Muslim authority, said Sundayâ€™s bombing aimed to â€œdestabilise security andâ€¦ the unity of Egyptiansâ€. Egyptâ€™s Copts have endured successive attacks since Morsiâ€™s ouster in July 2013. More than 40 churches were attacked nationwide in the two weeks after the deadly dispersal by security forces of two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo on August 14, 2013, Human Rights Watch said. Amnesty International later said more than 200 Christian-owned properties were attacked and 43 churches seriously damaged, adding that at least four people were killed. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who as then army chief helped remove Morsi, has defended his security forces and accused jihadists of attacking Copts in order to divide the country. In October 2011, almost 30 people â€” mostly Coptic Christians â€” were killed after the army charged at a protest outside the state television building in Cairo to denounce the torching of a church in southern Egypt. In May that year, clashes between Muslims and Copts left 15 dead in the working-class Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba where two churches were attacked. A few months earlier, the unclaimed bombing of a Coptic church killed more than 20 people in Egyptâ€™s second city of Alexandria on New Yearâ€™s Day. Pope Francis will visit the site of the December church attack next to Saint Markâ€™s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral â€” the seat of Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II.