MINYA, Egypt (AP) — Hundreds of Egyptian Coptic Christians gathered Saturday for a funeral service south of Cairo to bid farewell to six of seven people killed the previous day when militants ambushed three buses carrying pilgrims on their way to a remote desert monastery.
The service at Prince Tadros church in the city of Minya was held amid tight security and presided over by Minya’s top cleric, Anba Makarios. He and members of the congregation prayed and chanted over a row of six white coffins.
Relatives of the victims cried and held each other for support.
All but one of those killed were members of the same family, according to a list of the victims’ names released by the church, which said a boy and a girl, ages 15 and 12 respectively, were among the dead. A total of 19 were wounded in the attack, according to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The local Islamic State group affiliate, which spearheads militants fighting security forces in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the attack south of Cairo. It said the attack was revenge for the imprisonment by Egyptian authorities of “our chaste sisters” but did not elaborate.
The IS affiliate claimed that 13 Christians were killed and another 18 wounded, but it was not immediately possible to independently verify the claim or reconcile the discrepancy in the number of dead and wounded given by the group and the church.
The attack was likely to cast a dark shadow on one of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s showpieces — the World Youth Forum — which opens Saturday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The forum is drawing thousands of local and foreign youth to discuss a wide range of topics, with Egypt’s 63-year-old leader taking center stage.
The Islamic State has repeatedly vowed to go after Egypt’s Christians as punishment for their support of el-Sissi. As defense minister, el-Sissi led the military’s 2013 ouster of an Islamist president, whose one-year rule proved divisive. The group has claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks on Christians dating back to December 2016.
El-Sissi, who has made security among his top priorities since taking office in 2014, wrote on his Twitter account that Friday’s attack was designed to harm the “nation’s solid fabric” and pledged to continue fighting terrorism. He later offered his condolences when he spoke by telephone with Pope Tawadros II, spiritual leader of Egypt’s Orthodox Christians and a close el-Sissi ally.
In a somber message of his own, Tawadros said in a video clip released by the church that the latest attack would only make the Christians stronger.
“I think that this is a terrorist act which is targeting Egypt through playing the card of the Copts,” said Begemy Nassem Nasr, priest of the church of St. Mary in Minya. “We know that … President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is hosting the youth forum and they meant to embarrass him.”
Embarrassingly, Friday’s attack is the second to target pilgrims heading to the St. Samuel the Confessor monastery in as many years, indicating that security measures put in place since then are either inadequate or have become lax. The previous attack in May 2017 left nearly 30 people dead.
It was the latest in a string of IS assaults against Christians. Previous ones targeted churches packed with worshippers in Cairo, the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and Tanta in the Nile Delta north of the capital, leaving at least 100 people dead.
The attacks led to tighter security around Christian places of worship and Church-linked facilities, where metal detectors and armed police are routinely deployed. They have also underlined the vulnerability of minority Christians in a country where many Muslims have since the 1970s grown religiously conservative and less tolerant of non-Muslims.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said Friday’s attackers used secondary dirt roads to reach the buses carrying the pilgrims, who were near the monastery at the time of the attack. Only pilgrims have been allowed on the main road leading to the monastery since last year’s attack.
Some Christians in Minya said police negligence was partly to blame for the latest attack, arguing that they stopped providing armed escorts for pilgrims’ buses headed to the old monastery.
“They should have escorted them. They know it is dangerous to leave them alone on that road,” said Youssef Attya, a 38-year-old health worker from Minya.
The Interior Ministry said police were pursuing the attackers, who fled the scene.
Egypt’s Christians, who account for some 10 percent of the country’s 100 million people, complain of discrimination in the Muslim majority country. Christian activists say the church’s alliance with el-Sissi has offered the ancient community a measure of protection but failed to end frequent acts of discrimination that boil over into violence against Christians, especially in rural Egypt.
In Minya, the scene of Friday’s attack, Christians constitute the highest percentage of the population — about 35 percent — of any Egyptian province. It’s also in Minya where most acts of violence, like attacks on churches and Christian homes and businesses, take place.
Christians there accuse the local police of being soft on Muslims who attack them and complain that, in their pursuit of keeping the peace between the two communities, they insist on resolving sectarian disputes through tribal-like reconciliation meetings rather than rule of law.
By SAMY MAGDY and HAMZA HENDAWI , Associated Press
Hendawi reported from Cairo.