(CNSNews.com) – A church bombing in Cairo Sunday killed at least 25 people, most of them women, deepening concerns among Egyptian Christians that despite its promises the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has done little to improve the situation for the embattled minority.
Health authorities said at least 49 others were injured in the explosion, during a morning service in a 105-year-old chapel adjacent to the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.
Local media highlighted uncertainties about exactly how the attack occurred: Some said a woman left a bomb in the designated women’s section of the chapel, while others said an assailant on a motorcycle had thrown the device into the premises.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Copts have been targeted in attacks of varying kinds carried out by radical Muslims – on an average of once a month, according to Coptic leader Pope Tawadros II – but Sunday’s was the deadliest in years. A church bombing in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve 2011 cost 23 lives, and 21 abducted Copts were beheaded by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists on a beach in Libya early last year.
More broadly there have been a spate of terror attacks lately, including one at a Giza checkpoint Friday in which six security officials were killed and another three injured.
Sisi described the church attack, and the one on Friday, as part of “a war against the great Egyptian people.”
He expressed his condolences in a phone conversation with Tawadros, pledged to find and punish those responsible, and declared three days of national mourning.
Later Sunday Copts gathered and protested near the cathedral, with some demanding the resignation of the minister responsible for law enforcement.
Copts are adherents of an Orthodox denomination dating back to the early church. Theirs is the largest Christian minority in the Middle East today, comprising about 10 percent of Egypt’s population on 94.6 million.
Members of the community, which for years has faced multiple forms of discrimination, largely welcomed the intervention by the Egyptian military, then led by Sisi, to oust the one year-old Muslim Brotherhood administration of President Mohammed Morsi in mid-2013.
Although the toppling of Morsi triggered a series of church attacks by angry Islamists, the departure of Morsi left many Copts feeling more optimistic about the future.
Signaling a new era, in January 2014, the then-interim president, Adly Mansour, visited St. Mark’s Cathedral over Orthodox Christmas in the first such gesture by a head of state since the cathedral’s inauguration in 1968.
A year later, Sisi visited the cathedral for Christmas Mass, and he did so again last January.
But for some Copts, the new government has been a disappointment.
An increase in attacks against and harassment of Copts in especially rural parts of Egypt occurred earlier this year, including stabbings, shootings, kidnappings, mob arson attacks.
In one incident last May, hundreds of Muslims angered by rumors of an affair between a Christian man and Muslim woman, torched seven Copts’ houses in a village in Upper Egypt and forced the elderly Christian mother of the accused man to be paraded, naked, through the village.
'Disenchanted and disillusioned'
Last August, the U.S.-based group Voice of the Copts organized a protest in Washington DC to highlight the ongoing incidents, which it claimed were taking place “with collusion of the Egyptian government and amidst an almost complete absence of protection and justice.”
In an open letter to Sisi at the time, Voice of the Copts president Ashraf Ramelah recalled that when Morsi was removed, Sisi appeared to be a “savior.”
“Egyptians trusted you and your words, not the least so, because of the military uniform you were wearing,” the letter said. “In spite of Egypt’s adverse experience with past military rulers, you were seen as a hope not only for Copts but for a new Egypt!”
“Now, after two years in office, the actions of your government are the same as past regimes,” it continued, going on to list law and order concerns, as well as a series of recent attacks against Copts.
“If you can’t fulfil your promises to the people,” the letter concluded, “please step down.”
Reacting to Sunday’s church bombing, the Australian Coptic Movement Association expressed similar disappointment in the Egyptian government, saying that the community “is slowly becoming disenchanted and disillusioned with the current administration.”
“There is no doubt that the current El-Sisi administration has made promising overtures of a new dawn in Egypt after the catastrophic rule of the incompetent Morsi regime,” it said in a statement.
“Nevertheless, Copts, as well as liberal and moderate Egyptians of all faiths and ethnicities, have been patiently waiting for outcomes which have hitherto yet to be delivered and for some, after three tumultuous years, their patience is wearing thin.”
The organization recalled that when Egypt stood for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in elections last October (for a three-year term starting in January), the government stressed its commitment to protecting fundamental human rights of each person.
It would be “astonishing,” it said, for Egypt now to “ignore, dismiss or be nonchalant about the rights and expectations of a significant ethno-religious minority in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Condemnation of Sunday’s attack came from across the religious spectrum in Egypt and from around the world
Secretary of State John Kerry told his Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, that the U.S. “will continue to stand with the people of Egypt as they face threats from terrorist organizations and work to achieve a stable, secure, and prosperous future,” according to a State Department readout.
Russian President Vladimir Putin deplored the loss of life, noting in particular the fact most of the victims were women.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said his country shared the grief of the victims’ families and Egyptian people, adding “we must unite forces and fight terrorism together.”