Blasts at Christian churches in Egypt kill dozens on Palm Sunday

TANTA, Egypt -- Bombs targeted two Coptic churches in Egypt as the Christian faithful observed Palm Sunday, one of the most important days on the religion's calendar.

A powerful blast rippled through a Palm Sunday service at a Coptic Christian church in the northern Egypian city of Tanta, killing 25 people and wounding 60 others, state TV reported. The explosive device at St. George's Coptic church in Tanta was planted under a seat in the church, where it detonated in the main prayer hall, it said.

At least 11 people were killed and 35 others wounded in a suicide bomb attack outside Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, according to two state-news outlets. Egyptian state media also reports that the head of Egypt's Coptic Church Pope Tawadros II was inside the Church when the blast happened. He was not injured.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility.

Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, and marks the start of Holy Week for Christians.

Nile and Masriya TV, Egyptian state outlets, aired black banners in the upper left of its newscasts to signify mourning for the victims of both explosions.

In Tanta, news footage shows people gathered at the church, singing hymns. The video then quickly switches to bars as harrowing screams and cries echo in the background.

"Everything is destroyed inside the church" and blood can be seen on marble pillars, said Peter Kamel, who saw the aftermath of the carnage.

It appeared the explosive device was placed near the altar, he said. Priests and the church choir were among the casualties.

Social media video showed crowds gathered outside the church shortly after the attack.

In Alexandria, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that police assigned to St. Mark's stopped a terrorist with an explosive belt from breaking into the church. Along with civilians, a policeman, a policewoman and other police staff were killed.

Egyptian blogger Maged Butter told CNN he saw five or six ambulances and blood stains 100 meters away from the site of the explosion -- near the church gate.

He said women were crying and looking for their loved ones and were yelling at police for not protecting them. Police faced difficulty as crowds gathered.

"Every now and then, I see a person crying -- I think they are Christian -- and they keep saying: 'have you seen my family? Have you seen my family?' " Butter said.

Alexandria sits on the Mediterranean and has a large Christian population. Downtown is usually busy but was relatively quiet on Sunday because of the holiday.

"This is usually a very busy area, but thank God it is a Sunday, and many shops are closed," he said.

While it's unclear who attacked the churches, Copts face persecution and discrimination that has spiked since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak's regime in 2011.

Dozens have been killed in sectarian clashes. In December, an attack at a Coptic church in Cairo killed 25 people.

"Coptic churches and homes have been set on fire, members of the Coptic minority have been physically attacked, and their property has been looted," rights group Amnesty International reported in March.

Coptic Christians make up about 10% of Egypt's population of 91 million. They base their theology on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, who introduced Christianity to Egypt.

Tanta is roughly 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Cairo, in the Nile delta.

The attack comes days after President Donald Trump welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Washington and stressed his support for Cairo. Among the topics of mutual concern were terrorism and terror group ISIS.

El-Sisi met Saturday with a US congressional delegation led by US Rep. Darrell Issa, the Egyptian government said.

The meeting addressed Egypt's counterterrorism efforts and adopting a strategy to fight terror and encourage religious tolerance and acceptance of others.

The Tanta attack drew outrage from religious leaders across the globe.

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Cairo this month, where he will meet with various religious leaders, including the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

He expressed his grief following the church attack.

"To my dear brother his Holiness Pope Tawadros II, to the Coptic church and to all of the dear country Egypt, I express my deep condolences, I prayed for the dead and the wounded, I am close to the families and to the entire community. God convert the hearts of the people who spread terror, violence and dead, and also the heart of who produces and traffic weapons," the Pope said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, serving the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion, called the attacks "evil" and urged people to pray for the victims.

The Coptic Christians in the United States mourn for their Egyptian brothers and sisters.

“We offer our prayers and our support to those people there…our brethren in Egypt are always kinda under the threat of persecution and suffering, while we here take for granted our churches are open without fear of coming to pray,” said Father Matthias Shehad of Houston St Mark Coptic Orthodox Church.

However they refuse to live in fear that the bloodshed in Egypt may ever find its way to the United States.

“Even if we did feel that there was such a concern here that this is something that might happen, we are actually ready to receive that, see this is one of the greatest honors that we hope for actually many people wish for martyrdom, that they can shed their blood for Christ just as he shed their blood for us,” said Father Shehad.

Some celebrations that would normally follow Easter services have been cancelled here, out of respect for those that died.

“Of course we’re always watchful for strangers or other people that might not need to be there, but uh, we trust in god, that he’s able to protect us,” said Father Shehad.