CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian Christians were burying their dead Monday after Islamic State suicide bombers killed at least 45 people in attacks on Palm Sunday services in two cities, as a state of emergency went into effect amid fears of further violence.
At least 17 people were killed at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, where Pope Tawadros II was leading Palm Sunday prayers. Another 28 were killed inside St. George’s Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta.
IS named the two attackers, whose noms de guerre suggest they were Egyptians. The extremist group had recently threatened to step up attacks against Egypt’s Coptic minority, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Mourners wailed and some collapsed as caskets marked with the word “martyr” were brought into the St. Mina monastery on the outskirts of the coastal city of Alexandria.
Rev. Danial Maher, of the Tanta church, lost his 23-year-old son, Beshoy, who was among six deacons killed in the attack. He recalled watching his son wearing white vestments and singing at the service. “He was like an angel,” he said.
Pictures of the elder Maher, sitting helplessly in blood-stained vestments after the attack, were widely circulated online. He buried his son late Sunday.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared a state of emergency, amid fears that IS militants, who have been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula for years, are shifting their focus to Christians. In December, a massive church bombing killed 30 people in Cairo, and a series of killings in the Sinai have caused hundreds to flee to safer areas.
The escalating violence has undermined the Egyptian government’s claim to being a bulwark against extremism in a chaotic region as it pursues closer ties with President Donald Trump, who hosted el-Sissi at the White House a week ago.
Parliament has seven days to approve or reject the state of emergency, but its approval is seen as a foregone conclusion since the legislature is packed with el-Sissi’s supporters. The Cabinet declared that it had gone into effect at 1 p.m. (1100 GMT).
In theory, it would allow for arrests without warrants, swifter prosecution of suspects, and special courts. But authorities have already been waging a heavy crackdown on dissent for years, so it was unclear if anything would change.
A limited state of emergency and nightly curfew in the northern Sinai, which has been in place since 2014, has done little to stem the violence there.
“We won’t see a change on the ground, as this decision wasn’t taken to give more powers or tighten control,” said political analyst Yasser Abdel-Aziz. “It’s a purely political decision that is meant to have a psychological impact.”
El-Sissi has clamped down on opponents since he led the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013. Security forces killed hundreds of protesters in the months after the overthrow as they violently dispersed demonstrations. Thousands have been jailed, mainly Morsi supporters but also secular and liberal activists.
“The powers that the security agencies have already don’t need reinforcement by the state of emergency,” Abdel-Aziz said. “The status quo of media and press freedoms is ideal for the security authorities to work without much noise.”
The liberal Egyptian Social Democratic party said the state of emergency could make things worse.
“Terrorism increased in the presence of the state of emergency,” said the party leader Mohammed Arafat. “The real battle against terrorism starts with the execution of law on all without discrimination.”
The Palm Sunday attacks, the single deadliest day for Egypt’s Christians in decades, rattled the community and prompted messages of support from abroad, including from Pope Francis, who is set to visit Egypt in the coming weeks, and Trump.
“This whole thing is to cause sectarian strife,” said Mona Makram, a former parliamentarian from a prominent Coptic family. “They want to show also that it is not only Sinai that will be targeted but the rest of the governorates.”
Israel meanwhile closed its Taba border crossing to Egypt after its anti-terrorism office warned of an “imminent” militant attack there, underlining fears of more violence. The closure comes hours before the start of the Passover holiday.
Southern Sinai, which has seen little of the violence plaguing the northern part of the peninsula, is a popular tourist destination.
Soon after the announcement, sirens wailed in parts of southern Israel alerting residents to a rocket attack. The military said a rocket fired from Sinai struck a greenhouse but caused no injuries. IS claimed responsibility.
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