Egypt's Coptic churches hit by deadly blasts on Palm Sunday

Two blasts targeting Coptic Christians in Egypt on Palm Sunday have killed at least 36 people, officials say.

In Alexandria, an explosion outside St Mark's Coptic church killed 11 people. Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, had been attending Mass inside and was unhurt, state media reported.

An earlier blast at St George's Coptic church in Tanta killed 25 people.

So-called Islamic State (IS) says it is behind the explosions. The group has targeted Copts in Egypt recently.

Four police officers, including one policewoman, were among those killed in Alexandria, the interior ministry said. The suicide bomber blew himself up after they stopped him from entering the church.

The first explosion in Tanta, 94km (58 miles) north of Cairo, took place near the altar.

Security forces later dismantled two explosive devices at the Sidi Abdel Rahim Mosque, also in Tanta, the state-run Al Ahram news website reports.

The blasts appear to have been timed for maximum impact, as people gathered to mark Palm Sunday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, marking the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.

Egyptian security forces had been put on alert in anticipation of attacks.

Pope Francis, who is due to visit Egypt later this month, has condemned the explosions.

Violence against the minority has risen in recent years, especially since 2013, when the military overthrew the elected president and launched a crackdown against Islamists.

Some supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, blamed Christians for supporting the overthrow.

In February, IS warned of more attacks against Copts, who make up about 10% of Egypt's population.

In December last year, 25 people died when a bomb exploded at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo during a service. IS said it was behind the attack.

On 1 April, an explosion outside a police training centre in Tanta injured 16 people.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian Church in Egypt. While most Copts live in Egypt, the Church has about a million members outside the country.

Copts believe that their Church dates back to around 50 AD, when the Apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt. Mark is regarded as the first Pope of Alexandria - the head of their church.

This makes it one of the earliest Christian groups outside the Holy Land.

The Church separated from other Christian denominations at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in a dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ.

The early Church suffered persecution under the Roman Empire, and there were intermittent persecutions after Egypt became a Muslim country. Many believe that continues to this day.

Source: BBC