Tanta, Egypt (Sydney Morning Herald) - Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi says a three-month state of emergency will be imposed after two deadly bombings hit Coptic churches, killing at least 44 people.
"A series of steps will be taken, most importantly, the announcement of a state of emergency for three months after legal and constitution steps are taken," Sisi said in a speech aired on state television on Sunday following the bombings, claimed by Islamic State.
The army chief-turned-president hasn't detailed the legal measures needed to declare the state of emergency but according to the Egyptian constitution, the parliament majority must vote in favour of the state of emergency.
At least 44 people were killed in bomb attacks on two Egyptian Coptic churches on Palm Sunday that included the seat of the Coptic Pope, the latest assault on a religious minority increasingly targeted by Islamist militants.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the two church bombings, the group's news agency Amaq said.
"A group that belongs to Islamic State carried out the two attacks on the churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria," Amaq said.
Both attacks happened on Palm Sunday a week before Coptic Easter, with Pope Francis scheduled to visit Egypt later this month.
The first bombing, in Tanta, a Nile Delta city about 100 kilometres north of Cairo, tore through the inside of St George Church during its Palm Sunday service, killing at least 27 people and injuring at least 78, the Ministry of Health said.
The second, carried out a few hours later by a suicide bomber in Alexandria, hit Saint Mark's Cathedral, the historic seat of the Coptic Pope, killing 16 people, including three police officers, and injuring 41, the ministry added.
Pope Tawadros, who had attended mass at Saint Mark's Cathedral, was still in the building at the time of the explosion but was not harmed, the Ministry of Interior said.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered military troops be deployed across the country "to secure vital facilities" in the wake of the attacks.
The bombings come as Islamic State's branch in Egypt appears to be stepping up attacks and threats against Christians, who make up roughly 10 per cent of the country's population.
In February, Christian families and students fled Egypt's North Sinai province after a spate of targeted killings.
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.
Both churches were packed for Palm Sunday services.
After the attack in Tanta, photos appeared on social media, showing bloodstained walls and shattered wooden pews. Many of the dead were believed to be children, according to local media reports.
Thousands gathered outside the church in Tanta shortly after the blast, some wearing black, crying, and describing a scene of carnage.
"There was blood all over the floor and body parts scattered," said a Christian woman who was inside the church.
"There was a huge explosion in the hall. Fire and smoke filled the room and the injuries were extremely severe," another Christian woman, Vivian Fareeg, said.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail are set to visit the Tanta site on Sunday and Sisi has ordered an emergency national defence council meeting, state news reported.
Blasts cast shadow over visit by Pope Francis
The blasts come ahead of a scheduled visit by Pope Francis to Egypt on April 28 and 29.
On Sunday, he denounced the bombings and expressed "his deep condolences" to "all of the dear Egyptian nation."
In remarks made after celebrating Mass in St Peter's Square at the Vatican, Pope Francis asked God to "convert the hearts of those who spread terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those who make, and traffic in, weapons."
The Catholic Archbishop of Egypt, Bishop Emmanuel, told journalists at a news conference on Friday that the pope's visit was meant to send a message that Egypt was safe.
Pope Francis is scheduled to meet Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and leaders of the Catholic diocese in the country. And in an effort to improve relations between Muslims and Christians, he is also expected to meet with grand imam of Al Azhar, a centuries-old mosque and university, widely respected by Sunni Muslims.
Heightened terror alert
A shift in Islamic State's tactics, which has waged a low-level conflict for years in the Sinai peninsula against soldiers and police, to targeting Christian civilians and broadening its reach into Egypt's mainland is a potential turning point in a country trying to prevent a provincial insurgency from spiralling into wider sectarian bloodshed.
Egypt's Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities. In 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya were killed by Islamic State.
"Of course we feel targeted, there was a bomb here about a week ago but it was dismantled. There's no security," said another Christian woman in Tanta referring to an attack earlier this month near a police training centre that killed one policeman and injured 15.
Copts face regular attacks by Muslim neighbours, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or the construction of a church.