(Beirut) – The suicide bombings at two Egyptian churches on April 9, 2017, that killed at least 45 people are a terrifying reminder of the escalating threats facing Egypt’s Christian minority, Human Rights Watch said today. Two parishioners and a pastor at one of the churches told Human Rights Watch that police protection at the church gate was inadequate and may have allowed the bomber to enter.

The attacks during Palm Sunday services in Tanta and Alexandria, claimed by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), were the worst day of violence targeting Christians in Egypt’s modern history. In response, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a nationwide state of emergency, the first since security forces violently dispersed anti-government protests in 2013, killing hundreds.

Relatives of victims grieve next to coffins arriving to the Coptic church that was bombed on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017. 

“These church bombings were the savage work of extremists who have no regard for the sanctity of life,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The deep-rooted sectarianism in many places in Egypt provides the climate where this hateful ideology can fester, but states of emergency have been the path to more abuses, not greater protection for Christian lives.”

In Tanta, a city in the Nile Delta 95 kilometers north of Cairo, a man wearing concealed explosives managed to pass through a security check outside St. George’s Church and detonate himself near the front pews, killing at least 28 people and wounding 77, according to media reports. In Alexandria, church security camera footage showed another bomber trying to enter St. Mark’s Church through an open gate and being directed toward a metal detector guarded by police officers. When an officer stopped the man, he detonated his explosives, killing at least 17 people and wounding 48.

Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, was inside St. Mark’s Church but was not harmed, according to the Interior Ministry.

Two members of St. George’s Church and one of the church’s pastors told Human Rights Watch that police had not taken serious steps to secure the church for Palm Sunday, though they had defused an explosive device in the street next to the church just 11 days earlier. One church member said that the police should have taken the explosive device as a sign of an impending attack.

Coptic Christians in Egypt have faced escalating threats since a December 11, 2016, ISIS suicide bombing at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, which killed at least 25 people and wounded 49. At least seven Coptic Christians in North Sinai, the stronghold of Egypt’s ISIS affiliate, were killed in the following months, prompting the majority of Coptic residents in al-Arish, the area’s biggest town, to flee to mainland Egypt. On February 19, 2017, in a video claiming responsibility for the Cairo cathedral bombing, ISIS threatened further attacks on Christians, accusing them of being “the spearhead of the crusader project to fight God’s religion in Egypt.”

Coptic Christians, an estimated 10 percent of the Egyptian population, face widespread legal and social discrimination and are routinely denied high-level government and security services jobs. They have been the victims of increasing sectarian attacks since the 2011 uprising, particularly since July 2013, when the military removed Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first freely elected president. On a number of occasions, Human Rights Watch has documented how Interior Ministry officials and prosecutors fail to conduct proper investigations or prosecutions into sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians.

In an April 10 statement, ISIS identified the two bombers as Egyptians, using the pseudonyms Abu al-Bara al-Masri and Abu Ishaq al-Masri. The group threatened further violence, describing Christians as “crusaders” and “apostates” and declaring that “the bill between us and them is very large, and they will pay it with rivers of blood from their children, with God’s permission.”

Hours after the attacks, Interior Minister Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar replaced two police generals responsible for security in Gharbia governorate, which includes Tanta, moving them to new assignments. The following day, al-Sisi formally decreed a three-month state of emergency, giving the armed forces responsibility for preserving security throughout the country and protecting private and public property.

On April 11, parliament voted unanimously to approve al-Sisi’s decree. Under the constitution, a majority is needed for approval, and a two-thirds majority to approve any renewal.

Egypt’s emergency law, which dates to 1958, gives the authorities sweeping powers to arrest, detain, try, and sentence suspects with almost no judicial review. A state of emergency was in place continuously between October 1981, after extremists assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat, and June 2012, when the government allowed it to expire more than a year after a nationwide uprising ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

The aftermath of an explosion that took place at a Coptic church on Sunday in Tanta, Egypt, April 9, 2017.

Though al-Sisi’s administration has taken numerous steps to recreate the powers Mubarak had during the state of emergency – including a broad counterterrorism law passed in 2015 – the emergency law goes further. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized Egypt for resorting to states of emergency and urged the government to use the penal code and regular courts instead.

A state of emergency allows for trials before Emergency State Security Courts, whose composition is determined by the president and whose verdicts cannot be appealed. It allows the authorities to arrest and search suspects without warrants, conduct surveillance on and censor any publication, seize property, forcibly evacuate areas, restrict public meetings, and set opening and closing times for businesses. People detained under the emergency law can only challenge their detention, before the Supreme State Security Court, if they are not released within six months, and the president must approve a court release order, allowing for indefinite detention.

In June 2013, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the emergency law’s warrantless arrest and search powers violated the constitution. In the absence of a lower house of parliament – which the court had dissolved a year earlier for violating elections law – the emergency law remained unchanged, and the military removed President Morsy’s administration from power one month later.

On April 11, a parliamentary committee proposed amendments to the emergency law to bring it in line with the court’s 2013 ruling. The amendments would allow police to arrest anyone suspected of a crime and allow prosecutors to seek permission from an Emergency State Security Court to hold detainees for indefinitely renewable one-month periods.

After al-Sisi declared the state of emergency, Ali Abdel Aal, the speaker of parliament, said that social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would fall under its surveillance and censorship provisions, the newspaper Al Masry al Youm reported. The day before the state of emergency, authorities confiscated editions of Al Bawaba, a pro-government newspaper, which criticized the authorities for failing to protect the churches.

In practice, Egyptian authorities have exercised de facto emergency powers since the military removed President Morsy. The government has effectively banned opposition protests, and police and Interior Ministry National Security officers have arbitrarily arrested thousands of suspects, used torture routinely to elicit confessions, and forcibly disappeared hundreds for months at a time. Courts and prosecutors have issued mass death sentences and held hundreds of other detainees in preventive detention for more than two years, exceeding the amount of time allowed by law. Judges have regularly acted as rubber stamps for National Security officers, only a handful of whom have received sentences for abusing detainees in custody, and all of which remain on appeal.

Under international law, governments may declare a state of emergency when there is a “public emergency that threatens the life of the nation,” but the emergency restrictions must be proportionate and limited to the greatest extent possible in both time and area. Some rights, including the absolute ban on torture, the right to judicial review of detention, and the right to a fair trial, cannot be limited even during emergencies.

Mina Nagy, a member of St. George’s Church who was on his way to attend the service when the explosion took place, told Human Rights Watch that the church had opened only one gate that day, but that the metal detector there did not work. Police stationed at the gate performed only cursory inspections of those who entered, he said.

“This is a man who’s entering, so what should you search for?” Nagy said. “In this security situation, I should check your identity if you’ve got a strange look like you’re not from here. Try to find out your character, your identity, who are you, kind of like what happened in Alexandria. The man refused to let him go through the main door so he went to the metal detector.”

A second church member who knew many of those who survived the bombing and asked not to be identified also said that the church’s metal detector rarely worked and that the police guards rarely inspected the bags or clothing of people entering the church. He said that police should have set up checkpoints down the street from the church gate, given the holiday crowds.

“The whole problem is about the protection of the church,” he said.

A pastor who was inside the church at the time of the explosion, which killed his son, told Human Rights Watch that security camera footage from inside the church showed a man wearing a cap and sunglasses and holding a jacket entering the church and moving quickly toward the area where priests were standing before detonating his explosives.

“There’s one door, where only one person can pass through the metal detector, which in principle is the responsibility of the Interior Ministry,” the pastor said. “How he ran through the gate no one knows.”

Security at the church was “decoration,” the pastor said. “There’s scenery. Just scenery.”