TANTA/CAIRO: The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for bombing two Egyptian churches as worshippers gathered to mark Palm Sunday, killing at least 43 people in the deadliest attacks on the Coptic Christian minority in recent memory.
The attacks followed a Cairo church bombing in December and came weeks before a planned visit by Catholic Pope Francis intended to show support for Egypt's Christian minority.
The first bombing at the Mar Girgis church in Tanta city north of Cairo killed 27 people, the health ministry said.
"I just felt fire grabbing my face. I pushed my brother who was sitting next to me and then I heard people saying: 'explosion'," a wounded witness in hospital told state television.
Emergency services had scrambled to the scene when another blast rocked Saint Mark's church in Alexandria where Coptic Pope Tawadros II had been leading a Palm Sunday service.
Sixteen people including three police officers were killed in that attack, which the interior ministry said was caused by a suicide bomber who blew himself up when prevented from entering the church.
The ministry said Tawadros was unharmed, and a church official said he left before the explosion.
The private CBC Extra channel aired footage of the Alexandria blast, with CCTV showing what appeared to be the church entrance engulfed in a ball of flame and flying concrete moments after a security guard turned away a man.
Eyewitnesses said a police officer detected the bomber before he blew himself up.
At least 78 people were wounded in Tanta and 40 in Alexandria, the health ministry said.
Officials denounced the violence as an attempt to sow divisions in Egypt, and Francis sent his "deep condolences" to Tawadros.
IS claimed its "squads" carried out both attacks, in a statement by its self-styled Amaq news agency published on social media.
After the bombings, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered military deployments to guard "vital and important infrastructure", his office said.
State television reported that the interior minister sacked the provincial head of security and replaced him after the attack.
There were bloodstains on the floor of the church in Tanta, next to shredded wooden benches.
On March 29, the Mar Girgis church's Facebook page said a "suspicious" device had been found outside the building that security services removed.
"I heard the blast and came running. I found people torn up... some people, only half of their bodies remained," said Nabil Nader, who lives in front of the Tanta church.
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Worshippers had been celebrating Palm Sunday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, marking Jesus's triumphant entrance to Jerusalem.
Francis, who is due to visit Cairo on April 28-29, offered prayers for the victims.
"Let us pray for the victims of the attack unfortunately carried out today," he said in an Angelus prayer.
"May the Lord convert the heart of those who sow terror, violence and death and also the heart of those who make weapons and trade in them."
Those attacks came after one of the deadliest on Egypt's Christian minority, when a suicide bomber hit its largest Coptic cathedral, killing at least 25. Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Thousands gathered outside the church in Tanta shortly after the blast, some wearing black, crying, and describing a scene of carnage.
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Copts, who make up about one tenth of Egypt's population of more than 92 million and who celebrate Easter next weekend, have been targeted by several attacks in recent months.
Terrorists accuse Copts of supporting the military overthrow of militant president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, which ushered in a deadly crackdown on his supporters.
In December, a suicide bombing claimed by IS killed 29 worshippers in a Cairo church adjacent to the papal seat.
The group later released a video threatening Egypt's Christians with more attacks.
A spate of terrorists-linked attacks in Egypt's restive Sinai Peninsula, including the murder of a Copt in the city of El Arish whose house was also burned, led some Coptic families to flee.
About 250 Christians took refuge in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya after IS released a video in February calling for attacks on the minority.
US President Donald Trump led international condemnation of Sunday's attacks.
"So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. US strongly condemns. I have great confidence that President Al Sisi will handle situation properly," he tweeted.
Prime Minister Sherif Ismail condemned the attack, stressing Egypt's determination to "eliminate terrorism".
The Cairo-based Al-Azhar, an influential Sunni Muslim authority, said it aimed to "destabilise security and... the unity of Egyptians".
Egypt's Copts have endured successive attacks since Morsi's ouster in July 2013.
More than 40 churches were attacked nationwide in the two weeks after the deadly dispersal by security forces of two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo on August 14 that year, Human Rights Watch said.
Sisi, who as then army chief helped remove Morsi, has defended his security forces and accused m of attacking Copts in order to divide the country.
In October 2011, almost 30 people -- mostly Coptic Christians -- were killed after the army charged at a protest outside the state television building in Cairo to denounce the torching of a church in southern Egypt.
A few months earlier, the unclaimed New Year's Day bombing of a Coptic church killed more than 20 people in second city Alexandria.