Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi declared a state of emergency nationwide on Sunday after attacks by suspected suicide bombers on two different Egyptian churches killed dozens and injured scores, in the deadliest recent attack against the country’s Christians.
On Palm Sunday morning, a bomb exploded inside Mar Girgis Church in the Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 27 and injuring 78 others, according to health ministry figures.
A few hours later in Alexandria, 17 civilians and police officers were killed as another suicide bomber blew himself up outside St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, as the head of the church, Pope Tawadros II, lead the service inside.
"The pope is safe and was not harmed in the attack," a short statement by Egypt's interior ministry said later.
Responding in a short televised address on Sunday night, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said he will impose a state of emergency nationwide for a period of three months.
El-Sisi had called a National Defence Council meeting on Sunday afternoon.
Chaired by the president and made up of the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, the defence minister and the commanders of the Egyptian armed forces, this was the second such meeting in five months convened in response to a deadly attack against Egyptian Christians.
On 11 December last year, a suicide bomber detonated explosives in the St Peter and St Paul’s Church in central Cairo during prayer services, leaving 29 dead and more than 40 wounded. The Islamist State militant group claimed responsibility for that attack.
By Sunday afternoon, Egypt's local Islamic State group affiliate,Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis group, had claimed both church attacks.
In an initial response, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ordered military special forces to assist police in securing vital state facilities all over the country.
Egyptian security forces have been put on alert in anticipation of further attacks.
In a video released by IS militants in February, the group threatened more attacks against the country’s Christian community.
The 20-minute video, titled "Fight All Idolaters,'' purportedly showed the last statements made by the suicide bomber who blew himself up in St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church.
Furthermore, the group launched an armed campaign to attack Christian residents of North Sinai governorate, pushing tens of families to forcefully leave their homes and flee to other Egyptian governorates.
Militants have suffered consecutive security hits in recent months, including the killing of one of their main leaders, Abu Anas El-Ansari, in an Egyptian army raid in North Sinai earlier this month.
International condemnation, solidarity
The attacks on Palm Sunday prompted condemnation and solidarity internationally.
Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church, who is scheduled to visit Egypt at the end of April, sent his “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and the entire dear Egyptian nation," adding that he was praying for the dead and wounded.
“I believe the goal of the first attack in Mar Girgis Church in Tanta was to be a diversion from the main target of the attack which is St Mark's Church in Alexandria where Pope Tawadros II himself was leading the Palm Sunday service,” said Ali Bakr, a researcher in terrorist organisations at Al-Ahram strategic centre.
The researcher also believes that IS militant group could be trying to compensate for its latest losses in North Sinai, as well as in Syria and Iraq and other places in Egypt.
“These attacks can be a message to show how the group is expanding in Egypt with different targets from Cairo to Sinai and Alexandria to Tanta”, he told Ahram Online.
Inside Tanta's church, the devastation was similar to the scenes inside St Peter and St Paul’s Church in Cairo last year.
Angry and grieving citizens gathered in shock as ambulances rushed to the scene, an Ahram Online correspondent reported from the scene of the attack.
Several minor clashes took place from time to time between security forces and citizens angry over what they described as a lack of security outside the church.
"Where are these security measures and dogs to detect explosives charges?” asked one woman who had survived the attack. She said that she was only alive because she and her son were late for the service.
The head of the Gharbiyah security directorate, Hossam Khalifa, was sacked following the Tanta attack.
Outside the church, an 80-year-old woman was grieving for her nephew who had been killed in the attack, and praying for another who had been injured, as dozens of Christians gathered around the church praying and waiting for the funeral service.
In Alexandria, an explosion outside St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the historical seat of the Coptic church, resulted in similar scenes,
Four Egyptian police officers were among the dead when a suicide bomber detonated himself outside the entrance gate to the cathedral.
The dead officers including policeman Ahmed Ibrahim, Brigadier General Nagwa El-Haggar, and Emad El-Rakiby, the head of the investigation department of Atarin district, the interior ministry said in a statement.
Fourteen other people were killed and 47 others were injured in the attack.
A statement by Egypt's interior ministry and a security surveillance video showed a man approaching to enter the cathedral in the Manshiya district of Alexandria, and being ushered by a man in civilian dress away from the open gate and towards a metal detector.
Minutes later smoke fills the screen.
The total number of casualties in the two attacks climbed to 44 dead and 126 injured, in the deadliest militant attack against civilians in decades.
Egypt's Copts are one of the most ancient Christian communities and the largest in the Middle East.
The make up around 10 -15 percent of Egypt's population of 92 million, according to unofficial figures.
Egypt has been battling waves of militant attacks in North Sinai, centred mainly in Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Arish since the ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
Correction: death toll was revised from 46 to 44 following official confirmation