Masked militants in military-style uniforms opened fire on a bus carrying Coptic Christians in central Egypt on Friday, killing at least 28 people in the latest bloodshed targeting the country’s Christian minority, officials said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the Islamic State has claimed links to previous attacks against Egypt’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population.
The massacre took place on the eve of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, a time when some militant factions have stepped up attacks in the past.
The ambush – in the Minya region about 150 miles south of Cairo – underscored the increasing pressures on Egyptian forces as Islamist militants gain greater footholds around the country, undercutting Egypt’s vital tourism industry and forcing greater security for Coptic Christians and others targeted by militants.
The Minya governor, Maj. Gen. Essam el-Bedewey, said at least 28 people were killed and at least 25 were wounded when the attackers fired on the bus heading for the St. Samuel Monastery, one of several pilgrimage sites in an area that is home to a large portion of Egypt’s Christian population. Among the dead were two small girls, 2 and 4 years old, local officials said.
A member of the region’s security department, Maj. Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, told reporters that about 10 men wearing military-style gear carried out the attack.
The attack spurred global condemnations, and Egyptian warplanes retaliated by striking militant bases in eastern Libya after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi warned in a televised address that training camps for terrorists who attack Egypt would be hit regardless of where they are. The planes targeted the headquarters of the Shura Council in the eastern Libyan city of Darna, where local militias have been linked to al-Qaida rather than the Islamic State, the Associated Press reported.
Sissi also appealed to President Donald Trump to lead the fight against terrorism. “I trust you, your word and your ability to make fighting global terror your primary task,” the Egyptian leader said.
Trump, attending a Group of Seven summit in Italy, denounced the “merciless slaughter of Christians” and called on nations to come together to fight “evil organizations of terror” and their “thuggish ideology.”
Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” by what he called a “barbaric attack” and a “senseless act of hatred.”
Israel joined the condemnation, as did its two main enemies in the region: Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militant group and the Islamist Hamas group that runs the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah denounced “terrorism that takes religion as a cover,” while Hamas called the bus attack “an ugly crime.”
The victims included Gerges Mahrous, a 25-year-old accountant, and his brother, Kirolos Mahrous, an 18-year-old high school student who were on their way to pray at the monastery, family members said after identifying their bodies at a local hospital.
“Why?” screamed their cousin, Amal Fares. “What have they done? Kirolos was just telling me he wanted to become a cardiologist and treat the people for free. An accountant and an honor student – what is their sin?”
An uncle, Fares Ishak, 70, said that according to survivors, the attackers demanded that the victims recite the shahada Islamic creed. His nephews “refused to give up on their faiths and died Christians,” he said.
Another cousin, Sama Malak, 15, angrily demanded justice. “No matter how strongly we condemn this and regardless of how much we speak out or even scream, nothing changes,” she said, citing previous attacks on Christians. “It is heart wrenching. We were shopping for dresses to attend Gerges’s wedding. Now we are wearing black to mourn him.”
Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, the country’s top Islamic authority, condemned what he called “the disgusting terrorist operation that was carried out by extremists against our Christian brethren.” He quoted the prophet Muhammad as having declared: “Whoever harms a person of the covenant [a non-Muslim of a Muslim territory], I am his adversary, and I will be his adversary on the Day of Judgment.”
Last month, twin bomb blasts rocked churches in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria and the northern city of Tanta, leaving 44 dead and prompting Sissi, to declare a state of emergency.
After the latest attack, the Egyptian president called an emergency meeting of security officials, state-run media reported.
In late April, Pope Francis visited Egypt as part of Vatican outreach to Egypt’s embattled Christians, whose community dates back to the early centuries of the faith. But the papal trip also brought denunciations from Islamist militants and warnings of further reprisals.
In December, a bomb hit the main cathedral in Cairo, killing 25 people as part of what is being described as a new strategy by the Islamic State to target Christians.
Christians have been generally supportive of Sissi’s military-backed government, but have become increasingly critical of the inability of the country’s security forces to protect their places of worship.
“The state is doing its best, but we need more efforts,” Minya’s Coptic Bishop Makarios told The Washington Post. “They [security forces] are always present and on guard after the attack takes place, and keep their security measures tightened for a short while after. . . . What we need is real effort exerted to ensure this is not repeated, not just solidarity and compassion.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Heba Farouk Mahfouz