image courtesy:The Boston Globe

Bombings at two Egyptian churches killed more than 36 people as they gathered to mark Palm Sunday, officials said, in one of the deadliest recent attacks on the country’s Coptic Christians.

Islamic State group claimed the attacks on two Coptic churches. Egyptian Christians have repeatedly been targeted by jihadists including the Islamic State group.

Coptic Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population of 85 million.

The attacks on the Mar Girgis church in the city of Tanta north of Cairo and Saint Mark’s Church in the coastal city of Alexandria came just weeks ahead of a visit by Pope Francis to show support for Egypt’s large Christian minority.

The first blast took place in the Coptic church of Mar Girgis, also known as St George, in the Nile delta city of Tanta, about 120 kilometres from Cairo.

“The explosion took place in the front rows, near the altar, during the mass,” General Tarek Atiya, the deputy to Egypt’s interior minister in charge of relations with the media, told sources.

The worshippers had been celebrating Palm Sunday, one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, marking the triumphant entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem.

Hours later, the second explosion took place in Alexandria’s Manshyia district when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near Saint Mark’s Church.

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for a National Defence Council meeting in response to the attack.

The National Defence Council is made up of the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, the minister of defence and the commanders of the Egyptian armed forces, and is chaired by the president.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered the opening of military hospitals to receive the injured. Reports state that 26 ambulances have reached the spot.

Egypt’s Christian minority has often been targeted by Islamist militants.

Egypt has seen a wave of attacks by militants since 2013 when the military toppled president Mohammed Morsi, an elected leader who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, and launched a crackdown against Islamists.

Al-Azhar, the world’s highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, strongly condemned the attacks, calling it an “outrageous crime” against all Egyptians.

“This terrorist attack is devoid of all the principles of humanity and civilisation,” it said in a statement.

No official statement has been released yet.