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Violence Escalates Against Egypt's Coptic Christian Minority

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for yesterday's suicide bombings in Egypt. More than 40 people died. The attack on the two churches marks an escalation in violence against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has declared a three-month state of emergency. We are joined now by The Washington Post's Cairo bureau chief, Sudarsan Raghavan. Thanks so much for being with us.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Glad to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Sudarsan, what can you tell us about where these attacks happened?

RAGHAVAN: Well, there were two attacks. The first one happened in the town of Tanta, which is roughly about 80 miles north of Cairo. And in that attack, at least 27 people were killed. And the second attack occurred less than three hours after the first attack and happened in the northern city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea. And that attack, there were at least 16 people who were killed, bringing the - as of now the total number's around 44, with more than a hundred injured. In the second attack - in fact, both attacks, witnesses described as being committed by suicide bombers who'd entered the church - churches.

MARTIN: We're talking about a small Christian community here, right? About 10 percent of Egypt's population are Coptic Christians. Why are they being targeted by ISIS?

RAGHAVAN: Well, that's a very good question. The community has been besieged for decades not just by extremists but also by, you know, successive authoritarian regimes. They feel extremely discriminated. But what's happening now is that the Islamic State, which - affiliate, which is based in the northern Sinai Peninsula, they issued a video in February specifically deciding to target the Christian community. And since then, there's been a spate of attacks there.

You know, hundreds of Christians have been driven out of the Sinai Peninsula by the militants. And, you know, there was also a bombing in December of a church in Cairo that killed more than two dozen people. And so there's just been, you know, a concerted effort by the Islamic State, in part to embarrass the government, because the Sisi government has, you know, has basically vowed to protect Christians. Christians were one of the biggest supporters of President Sisi when he came to power.

MARTIN: So what kind of foothold does ISIS have in Egypt? And what are the group's priorities there?

RAGHAVAN: Well, they are mostly in the northern Sinai Peninsula. And there, they've been engaging almost weekly in clashes with security forces there. But what we've been seeing in - certainly in the recent months, is that they have also targeted big cities like Cairo, like Tanta and Alexandria and largely focusing on, you know, suicide attacks and other sort of individual kind of lone-wolf-type attacks in other areas. But most of the confrontation is happening in the northern Sinai Peninsula.

MARTIN: Pope Francis is expected to visit Egypt in a couple weeks, right? He's obviously strongly condemned these attacks. Clearly, this is going to be the focus of his visit.

RAGHAVAN: Well, yes. I mean, I think one of the things that's, I mean, certainly one of the goals of Pope Francis' visit is to bridge this divide between Muslims and Christians in the - in Egypt. He's not only meeting with President Sisi and senior Christian leaders here, but he's also scheduled to meet with top Muslim leaders as well, clerics and others, in order to bridge this divide.

MARTIN: Yeah.

RAGHAVAN: But yes, that's definitely, you know, a key point about his visit is to bridge this - these tensions.

MARTIN: These divides, yes. We'll have to leave it there. Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post, thank you so much.

RAGHAVAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.