EGYPT – State of emergency declared after deadly attacks on churches
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency after the worst terrorist attack on civilians under his rule that left at least 44 dead raised fears that Islamic State was planning to launch more assaults on major cities. IS claimed responsibility for twin church bombings on Palm Sunday in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria, signaling an intent to expand its presence beyond the confines of the Sinai Peninsula: “The Crusaders and their apostate followers must be aware that the bill between us and them is very large, and they will be paying it like a river of blood from their sons, if God is willing.” Nile and Masriya TV, Egyptian state outlets, aired black banners in the upper left of their newscasts to signify mourning for the victims..
The first blast ripped through a Palm Sunday service at St. George’s Church in Tanta, killing at least 27 and injuring 78 others. An explosive device had been planted under a seat in the main prayer hall. “Everything is destroyed inside the church,” said Peter Kamel, who saw the aftermath of the bombing. Most of the injured appeared to be priests and members of the choir.
Not long afterward, a suicide bomber tried to enter St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria. Police officers who had been posted outside the church stopped him from entering the church. Two of those officers, a man and a woman, were killed, along with 18 civilians and 2 other police staff when he detonated his explosives. Egyptian blogger Maged Butter said he saw five or six ambulances and bloodstains 100 meters away from the site of the explosion, which happened near the church gate.
David Saeed said he was sitting in the last row in the church when the bomb went off. “We were just singing and suddenly in a blink of (an) eye, smoke, fire everywhere. I didn’t realize what’s happening until I saw blood and organs of our friends scattered over the ground.” He said he tried to save some of the dying and helped to carry others to ambulances in front of the church. “Every church in Egypt just prepares for this,” he added. “Everyone knows that some time you will get bombed, you will be killed.”
Egyptian churches in the southern city of Minya, which has the highest Coptic Christian population in the country, will not hold Easter celebrations this year as assign of mourning for the 45 Coptic Christians killed on Palm Sunday ceremonies.The Minya Coptic Orthodox Diocese said that celebrations will only be limited to the liturgical prayers “without any festive manifestations.” Copts traditionally hold Easter church prayers on Saturday evening and then spend Easter Sunday on large meals and family visits.
New special measures
The attacks undermined an image that the president and his supporters have cultivated – that of a career military officer capable of restoring security and crushing terrorism. Sisi made a defiant speech at the presidential palace after a meeting of the national defence council to discuss the explosions. “The attack will not undermine the resolve and true will of the Egyptian people to counter the forces of evil, but will only harden their determination to move forward on their trajectory to realize security, stability and comprehensive development,” the President said in a statement. Sisi announced new measures that included setting up a new, powerful supreme council to counter terrorism and extremism and allow the authorities to make arrests without warrants, search people’s homes, curtail political opposition, convene emergency courts, curb press freedoms and monitor private communications.
The measures were met with skepticism from analysts and rights groups who say security forces already enjoy sweeping powers against militants and political dissidents alike. The emergency measures, which were approved by cabinet and will take effect on Monday, are a “symbolic and a desperate move to try and convey that they’re taking ‘decisive’ action,” said Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “The reality is that security in Egypt is de facto unrestricted by any laws affecting how they’re prosecuting their campaign against militants.”
Monitoring groups have redoubled their efforts to track government violations of human rights and civil liberties, concerned that a lack of clarity around the wording of the law would allow the government to target critics and political opponents rather than the perpetrators of the attack. “We see dozens of reports of enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings occurring in Egypt, even without the emergency law,” said Ahmed Abdallah, head of the board of trustees of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, which monitors forced disappearances in Egypt.
The Palm Sunday bombings are expected to give fresh impetus to Pope Francis’ planned two-day visit later this month where he will meet with various religious leaders, including the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The pope is visiting Cairo on 28 and 29 April at the invitation of the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, and the grand imam of the mosque of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, as well as Catholic bishops and the Egyptian government.
Bishop Anba Angaelos, the head of the Coptic Orthodox church in the UK, said the Pope’s visit was “very significant” for both Catholic and Orthodox communities. “It’s a wonderful chance for Francis to practically show support for Christians in Egypt and in the Middle East.”
Tight security measures will be in place for the pope’s visit, which includes a speech to an international peace conference and a celebration of Mass with the small Catholic community in Cairo. Angaelos said: “The world we live in now means there is always a risk. Someone of the profile of Pope Francis – both the head of a church and a head of state – means there will be security protocols in place to protect and safeguard him.”
Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, Substitute of the Holy See State Secretaria, confirmed that The attacks in Egypt will not deter Pope Francis, who has every intention to travel to Egypt as planned.