ROME — Once again a terrorist attack has cast a shadow over Holy Week, this time with a bomb blast at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt that news reports say have left at least 36 people dead and more than 100 injured.
The first bombing, in Tanta, a Nile Delta city less than 60 miles outside Cairo, killed at least 25 and injured at least 78, Egypt’s Ministry of Health said. The second, carried out just a few hours later by a suicide bomber in Alexandria, hit the historic seat of the Coptic Pope, killing 11, including three police officers, and injuring 35, the ministry added.
Officials said that Pope Tawadros II was inside at the time of the attack but was not harmed. According to the Associated Press, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility on Sunday for the attacks.
Pope Francis reacted to the news during his Sunday address.
“May the Lord convert the hearts of those who sow fear, violence and terror,” Pope Francis said after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square, reading from a note handed to him, to which he added: “And that of those who produce and sell weapons.”
He also expressed his closeness to the families of the victims, Coptic Pope Tawardos II and the “dear Egyptian church.”
The blast came at Tanta, some 60 miles north of Cairo, at St. George Coptic Church, which was packed with faithful participating in the celebration.
Reports of the attack began to surface as Pope Francis was celebrating Palm Sunday Mass for thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square, so he didn’t mention the attack in his homily.
The liturgy commemorates the day in which Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted by the crowds who put palm leaves on the ground to welcome him. According to the Gospel, days later he was betrayed by Judas and crucified, two events marked by Christians around the world on Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
“This Jesus, who accepts the hosannas of the crowd, knows full well that they will soon be followed by the cry: ‘Crucify him!’” Francis said in his homily.
Jesus, he continued, doesn’t ask his followers to contemplate him on pictures or videos that circulate on the internet: “He is present in our many brothers and sisters who today endure sufferings like his own: They suffer from slave labor, from family tragedies, from diseases… They suffer from wars and terrorism, from interests that are armed and ready to strike.
“Jesus is in them, in each of them, and, with marred features and broken voice, he asks to be looked in the eye, to be acknowledged, to be loved,” he said.
Pope Francis will be going to Egypt for a two-day trip on April 28-29, where he will go to Al-Azhar Mosque and University.
He’s also scheduled to visit Pope Tawadros II.
Coptic Christians make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population and are often the targets of Islamic extremism. On December 11, the Coptic cathedral in Cairo was bombed, leaving 25 people dead, at least six of whom where children.
Earlier this year, hundreds of Christians fled the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula after a string of sectarian killings perpetrated by militants aligned with the Islamic State. In a recent video, the Sinai-based affiliate warned that it would escalate attacks against the nation’s Christians.
Members of the Coptic Church are already calling those killed “martyrs.” For instance, Bishop Suriel, of the Coptic diocese of Melbourne, Australia, said this on Twitter:
Islamic extremists target St George Cathedral, Tanta Egypt. Over 20 martyrs & 59 injured. It’s becoming our regular gift before feasts.
— Bishop Suriel (@BishopSuriel) April 9, 2017
Other religious leaders also reacted to the attack via Twitter, including Archbishop Mark Coleridge, from Brisbane, Australia:
Real palms for the real martyrs of #tanta. Forget the Temple: Jesus rides into the bombed church on a donkey to hand them out personally.
— Arch Mark Coleridge (@ArchbishopMark) April 9, 2017
Last year, on Easter Sunday, a terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan, killed 72 people, many of them children, who were targeted by a local faction of the Taliban for being Christian.
At the time, Francis said that Easter was “bloodied by a hideous attack” and called for civil authorities and all sectors of the nation to “make every effort to restore security and serenity to the population and in particular to the most vulnerable religious minorities.”
Editor’s note: This story is being updated.