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Gunmen kill 26 people in latest attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt

At least 26 people, including children, have been killed and 25 wounded in a gun attack on a bus carrying Coptic Christians south of Cairo, the latest in a series of terrorist incidents targeting the religious minority in Egypt.

Local media reported witnesses saying that between eight and 10 gunmen, dressed in military uniform, carried out the attack. Egypt's interior ministry said the attackers, travelling in four-wheel-drives, "fired indiscriminately" at a car, bus and a truck in the al-Idwah district outside Minya, about 135 miles (220km) south of Cairo.

Activists monitoring the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt said the convoy was attacked on an unpaved desert road en route to the monastery of Saint Samuel, located close to Maghagha. The vehicles were carrying worshippers and workers to the holy site.

"The terrorists got in the bus and began shooting," said Bishop Makarios, the the highest Coptic church official in Minya. "The injuries are straight shots in the head, body and the neck." Images circulating from the scene showed bodies lying on blood-stained sand.

A search by Egyptian security forces was launched. "What we now know for sure is that three cars executed the attack, with up to 10 men inside," said Gen Essam al-Din Bedewi, the Minya governor. "Security forces have now closed the road leading to the monastery. We are now intensifying security, as this road is close to the western desert, and we fear that the perpetrators may attempt to escape through the mountainous area close to the monastery."

Children aged two and four were among the victims, according to a list of victims released by the governorate of Minya.

President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi declared a state of emergency last month after two suicide bombings on Coptic churches killed at least 45 people. The attacks on 9 April, for which Isis claimed responsibility, struck worshippers in the town of Tanta and the Egyptian port city of Alexandria as they celebrated Palm Sunday.

Many Coptic Christians in Egypt declined to celebrate the Easter holiday following the attack, which sparked anger among the community who argued that lax government security had allowed the attacks to take place. Egyptian authorities recently referred 48 defendants to military court for their involvement in the attacks.

Late last month, Pope Francis visited Egypt, in part to show his support for Christians who have been increasingly targeted by Islamist militants. After his visit, Isis vowed to escalate attacks against Christians, urging Muslims to steer clear of Christian gatherings and western embassies.

This latest attack undermines the government's visible efforts to bolster security after the Palm Sunday bombings. While no group has so far claimed responsibility for Friday's attack, Isis named Christians in Egypt as their "favourite prey" when claiming responsibility for an attack on a Coptic Cathedral in Cairo in December 2016, which left 29 dead. Christians comprise 10% of the country's 93 million population.

"This proves that applying the state of emergency doesn't provide safety and Coptic Christians are still heavily targeted," said Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on religious affairs at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Egypt's Coptic church has traditionally preserved close ties to the Egyptian government, seeking protection as the country's largest minority. Bishop

Makarios, who has previously criticised the government for similar security failures, praised the government's response to Friday's attack. It was a "natural escalation" following the nationwide state of emergency, which is due to be renewed in July, he said, adding: "Security around monasteries and churches is tight, so attackers are thinking of other ways to hit the same target far from secure places."

People in Minya protested on the streets after Friday's attack. The area has one of the highest concentrations of Coptic Christians in Egypt and they have complained of increasing sectarian violence in the town, including the burning of churches and other buildings used for worship, as well as stabbings and an incident where an elderly woman was stripped naked and paraded through the town.

Muslim leaders rushed to condemn the incident, which occurred the day before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Dar al-Ifta, the state-linked Islamic authority in Egypt considered a beacon of Sunni Islam across the Middle East, released a statement on Facebook condemning the attack. "These traitors violated Islam's principles by spilling blood and terrorising others, and broke their vows [of protection] by targeting Christian brothers, who are our partners in the homeland.

"Neither Muslim nor Christian approves of the Minya incident, which targets stability in Egypt," wrote Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, in a statement released through the institution's official Facebook page. "I call upon all Egyptians to unite in the face of this brutal terrorism."

Bishop Anba Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox leader in the UK, tweeted that he was speechless after hearing of the attack.

Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who hosted Coptic Orthodox leader Pope Tawadros at Lambeth Palace this month, said he was "heartbroken by the news of another awful attack on men, women and children, murdered because of their faith in Jesus Christ", adding: "Today we stand with all those who fear for their lives because of their faith. We stand with Pope Tawadros and all the Christians of Egypt, in prayer and solidarity."

[Source: Ruth Michaelson in Cairo, The Guardian, London, 26May17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 29May17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.