“Where were you when it happened?” shouted a woman at police and security forces close to St George Church in Tanta hours after it was ripped apart by an explosion.
Palm Sunday’s suicide bombing in the Delta town killed 29 worshipers and injured 78. According to officials, a bomb exploded “in the front rows, near the altar, during the mass” as the church was packed with worshipers marking Palm Sunday.
“How could a suicide bomber have entered the church? It is an unacceptable level of security,” Sona, a Christian woman who lost her 65-year-old uncle Medhat Moussa in the blast, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “People die inside the houses of our Lord and I don’t know long such terrifying conditions will continue.”
Sona and her husband George rushed to the church as soon as they heard about the bomb.
“Moussa was a retired army officer. He fought in the 1967 and 1973 wars and survived, only to be killed by terrorists,” said George. “The Interior Minister should resign. And so should the governor and security director of Gharbiya governorate.”
In the wake of the blast the angry crowd which had gathered in front of the church turned on Gharbiya Security Director General Hossam Khalifa as he arrived to inspect the scene. Within hours Khalifa had been sacked and replaced with Tarek Hassouna. The Director of the Criminal Investigation Department General Ibrahim Abdel-Ghaffar was also dismissed. Hehas been replaced by General Ayman Sayed.
Hoda Michael, a Coptic woman who lives close to the church, echoed Sona’s words. “Everyone needs to know there was a security failure. There was an alert 10 days ago. Security measures should have been intensified.”
The blast at the church was the second terrorist bombing to strike Tanta in less than two weeks. On 31 March 16 people were injured when a bomb exploded outside a police training centre. Two days later, on 2 April, an IED found in front of the same church was defused by a bomb disposal unit.
Eyewitnesses attending mass on Palm Sunday told Al-Ahram Weekly security outside the church on Palm Sunday was lax.
Yet the Interior Ministry employees guarding the church say that they are not responsible for inspecting those entering and have no control over the access gate. That, two policemen stationed outside the church told the Weekly, is the responsibility of the private security company employed by the church.
“When they suspect someone they hand him to us for further inspection,” said one.
Both policemen said the security firm authorised to oversee access to the church was staffed by mostly young Coptic men familiar with the congregation, an account confirmed by one of the church priests.
Security expert Major General Hossam Sweilam also distanced the Ministry of Interior from any responsibility for failing to prevent Sunday’s attack. “Responsibility for securing the church gates lies with a private security firm while external security is for the police,” Sweilam told the Weekly. Anyone entering the gates, he added, is the responsibility of the private company hired to monitor them.
By Sunday evening the entrance to Tanta University Hospital morgue was crowded with families dressed in mourning waiting to receive the bodies of the victims.
Kirollos, whose father was killed in the blast, said his mother had at first been unable to identify her husband’s body in the morgue because it was badly mutilated.
“God curse the terrorists. They turn our feasts to sorrow and try to foment strife with our Muslim brothers,” Mina, a young Coptic man whose aunt was injured in the incident, told the Weekly as he was visiting her in Tanta University Hospital.
“But they will not succeed. Now our blood is mixed with our Muslim brothers who donated their own blood to help the injured.”
Two additional bombs were found on the same day in Tanta, at Al-Sayed Al-Badawi Mosque. Discovered just before the Asr (evening) prayer, the bombs were defused after the mosque was evacuated.
Two hours after the deadly explosion in Tanta a bomb was detonated outside Saint Mar’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, killing 17 people and injuring 40 others. Failing to enter the Cathedral in which Pope Tawadros II was delivering a sermon on the occasion of Palm Sunday a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at the main gate.
Among the victims were seven policemen.
CCTV footage shows a man trying to enter the main gate of St Mark’s but being redirected to the adjacent metal detector gate. Almost immediately the screen is engulfed by the debris of the explosion.
Mohamed Abdel-Sabour, a 32-year-old accountant, was passing by the Cathedral gate on his way home from work when the blast happened, says his friend Mohamed Fawzi.
“When I heard about the explosion I immediately called him but there was no answer,” said Fawzi. “We knew nothing until 4pm when I contacted someone at the morgue and they told me he was dead.”
Standing in front of Kom Al-Dekka Morgue on Sunday evening, Fawzi told the Weekly his friend had married only recently and just become a father. “May God help his wife,” he said.
Asmaa Ibrahim, a 29-year-old police sergeant, was standing less than a metre away from the suicide bomber when he detonated his vest. The mother of two — Sandy, three years old, and Rodina, seven months — was married to a policeman.
“We have lost a loyal colleague and friend. May God grant Nabil [Ibrahim’s husband] patience and help raise his daughters,” said one of Ibrahim’s colleagues.
In Al-Amiri Hospital, Marina was waiting for her daughter Mariam to come out of surgery. Her second daughter, Hayat, was killed in the blast. “Hayat left the church directly after mass and seconds later Mariam followed her. I heard the explosion and rushed out of the Cathedral to find Hayat blown to pieces and Mariam severely injured,” Marina told the Weekly.
“The terrorists have deprived me of my daughter, and my daughter’s two children of their mother.”
At the Interior Ministry’s Police Hospital Brigadier General Sherif Al-Husseini was in intensive care after having shrapnel removed from his injuries. “Our hope in God is great that he will recover soon,” Al-Husseini’s cousin said. “Now they have declared a state of emergency and security conditions will improve, God willing.”
Following the two blasts President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi ordered a nationwide deployment of soldiers to protect “vital facilities” and announced a three-month state of emergency.
Within hours of the two attacks Islamic State (IS) had claimed responsibility and warned of future attacks.
Coptic Christians comprise an estimated 10 per cent of Egypt’s total population. In a video released in February — two months after the 2016 attack on worshipers at the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya which left 29 dead — IS threatened to target Copts across Egypt.
Following the release of this video attacks against Copts have risen, particularly in North Sinai where in three weeks seven Christians were murdered, two of them burned to death. The violence led to an exodus of Coptic families from Arish. So far 258 Coptic Christian families have left the North Sinai city.
Gamal Sultan, an expert on Islamist groups, says IS has two goals in targeting Coptic Egyptians. “It is seeking to portray the Egyptian regime as one unable to protect minorities in Egypt and Egypt as an unstable country where the security forces cannot protect even fortified locations, thus undermining any attempts to revive tourism and improve economic conditions. Its second goal is to punish Christians for supporting the 30 June Revolution and the current regime.”