Two suicide bombers struck Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday leaving 40 worshippers and police dead.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for both attacks in a statement via its Aamaq news agency, according to The New York Times, which also reports ISIS as having recently signaled its intention to escalate a campaign of violence against Egyptian Christians.

The paper reports that the first blast occurred at St Georges church in the Nile delta town of Tanta, killing 27. The second blast at St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria killed a further 13. Both are Coptic Orthodox churches. The Coptic Church is the main group of Christians in Egypt, and forms about ten per cent of the population.

Earlier, Bishop Anba Sutile, Bishop of the Coptics in Australia tweeted, “Martyrs now number over 30 and my sources say bomb placed under bishop’s throne, near altar area, many deacons died.”

“As forensic teams combed through the bloodstained wreckage of the church in Tanta, witnesses told of how a suicide bomber managed to slip through a side door where security officials had been checking congregants with a metal detector as they entered,” the Times reports.

Devastation inside a Egyptian church AMN Al Masdar News

Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic church, was in St Mark’s cathedral at the time of the blast but was uninjured as reported by Bishop Suriel and other news sources. State media reported Tawadros as saying “These acts will not harm the unity and cohesion of the people.”

Catholic Pope Francis who is due to visit Egypt April 28-29 said “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.” Reuters reports that the “Hastily prepared comments” were added to the end of his talk at a Palm Sunday mass.

The bombings were the latest in a series of assaults on Christians in Egypt, reports Christian news agency Morning Star. A bombing in the suburbs of Cairo at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also known as the Al Boutrosya Chapel on December 11 killed at least 25 people and wounded at least 49. The chapel is next to the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, which is held by many as the spiritual center of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

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