Egypt's president has called for a three-month state of emergency after suicide bombers struck hours apart at two Coptic churches, killing 44 people on Palm Sunday.
The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for the violence, adding to fears that extremists are shifting their focus to civilians, especially Egypt’s Christian minority.
The attacks in the northern cities of Tanta and Alexandria that injured 126 people came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit.
Pope Tawadros, the leader of the Coptic church who will meet Francis on April 28th and 29th, was in the Alexandria cathedral at the time of the bombing but was unhurt, the interior ministry said.
It was the single deadliest day for Christians in decades and the worst since a bombing at a Cairo church in December killed 30 people.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for a three-month state of emergency late on Sunday night.
The army chief-turned-president also sent elite troops across the country to protect key installations and accused unidentified countries of fuelling instability, saying “Egyptians have foiled plots and efforts by countries and fascist, terrorist organisations that tried to control Egypt”.
The attacks highlighted the difficulties facing Mr el-Sissi’s government in protecting Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population.
‘There is no government’
"Where is the government?" screamed Maged Saleh, who rushed to the church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta where his mother escaped the carnage. "There is no government."
The first bomb exploded inside St George’s Church in Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78, officials said, overturning pews, shattering windows and staining the whitewashed walls with blood.
Video from inside the church broadcast by CBC TV showed people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers. Several doors had been blown off. Women wailed outside.
Susan Mikhail, who has an apartment opposite the church, said: "Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes."
A few hours later, a suicide bomber rushed towards St Mark's Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, killing at least 17 people and wounding 48.
CCTV images showed a man with a blue sweater tied over his shoulders approaching the main gate to St Mark’s and then being turned away by security and directed towards a metal detector.
He passed a woman police officer talking to another woman and entered a metal detector before an explosion engulfed the area.
The health ministry said six Muslims were among the dead in Alexandria.
Pope Tawadros had held Palm Sunday services at the cathedral and the timing of the attack indicated the bomber had sought to assassinate him.
Pope Francis marked Palm Sunday in St Peter’s Square by expressing “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation”.
Magdy George Youssef (58), a deacon at St George’s, said the church was almost full when the blast occurred and threw him under a pew.
“All I could think of was to find my wife, and all I could see was smoke, blood and completely charred bodies,” he said. He later found his wife at home with burns to her face.
IS said two Egyptian suicide bombers named Abu Ishaq al Masri and Abu al Baraa al Masri carried out the church attacks and vowed to continue attacks against Christians.
“What happened is a dangerous indicator that shows how easy it is to attack a large gathering of people in different places,” said researcher Ishaq Ibrahim with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“There is a complete government failure in taking the IS threat seriously.”
Mr el-Sissi said Sunday's attacks would only strengthen the resolve of Egyptians against "evil forces" and held an emergency meeting of the National Defence Council.
Regional police chief Brig Gen Hossam Elddin Khalifa was fired over the Tanta bombing, state-run newspaper al-Ahram said.
US president Donald Trump tweeted that he was "so sad to hear of the terrorist attack" against the American ally but added that he had "great confidence" that Mr el-Sissi "will handle the situation properly".
The two leaders met at the White House on April 3.