CAIRO – Egypt said Sunday it killed 19 fighters involved in an ambush that left seven Christian pilgrims dead. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sought to respond to the anger of Christian anger against his government.
The Interior Ministry said that the Egyptian forces had killed the militants during a chase through a mountain area in the desert west of the old monastery, where armed men opened the fire on Friday on three buses with pilgrims.
Six of the seven pilgrims killed came from the same extended family, Coptic Orthodox officials said.
The announcement on Sunday was accompanied by graphic photographs of bloody bodies lying in the sand. However, it contained little information about the circumstances of the raid, including the timing or whether the government had suffered losses.
Egypt routinely publicizes such attacks, but there remain questions as to why security forces can not stop militant attacks. The indignation over the attack on Friday – the deadliest against Christians for nearly a year – was due to the fact In May 2017, a similar ambush was committed in nearly the same place, killing 28 pilgrims.
At a funeral on Saturday in Minya, hundreds of mourners laughed loudly and waved their fingers after a Coptic bishop publicly thanked the security forces and government officials.
In the attack on Friday, armed men opened fire on three buses shortly after leaving the monastery of St. Samuel in the desert south of Cairo. Seven people were killed in a bus and a total of 19 were injured, according to the representatives of the Coptic Church.
The Islamic State took responsibility and said in its Amaq intelligence service that the attack was in retaliation for the arrest of "our chaste sisters." He did not comment on it.
The Egyptian state information service called the attack "a desperate attempt" that showed the weakness of the group. It also renewed doubts about the effectiveness of the Egyptian strategy against the powerful local subsidiary of the Islamic State, which has grown in recent years over its Sinai fortress and has attacked Christians in churches, in major cities and outside monasteries.
"The reality is that the Islamic State has successfully carried out an attack on the same street, near the same monastery, at one-year intervals," said Timothy E. Kaldas, an analyst at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. "This calls into question the quality of the government's efforts to improve security, especially in Minya, where the Christian minority has been tirelessly targeted."
In Rome, Pope Francis denounced the violence. "I pray for the victims, pilgrims were killed just because they were Christians," he said Sunday in St. Peter's Square.
The attack coincided with the World Youth Forum, a high-profile event that Mr. Sisi hosts every year in the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea. This is an important part of his efforts to soften the image of his authoritarian rule.
On Sunday morning, Mr Sisi emphasized that the Egyptians should be free to worship at will and reaffirmed his commitment to the fight against discrimination.
Critics point out that religious freedom under Mr. Sisi is in an insecure state. The construction of Christian churches is subject to strict state restrictions. Muslim mobs have attacked Christians in the Minya district, the site of the attack on Friday and home to many of the estimated 10 million Egyptians in Egypt. The authorities arrested some atheists and prevented others from leaving the country.
The Coptic Orthodox leadership and many Christians supported their support for Mr Sisi after coming to power in a military takeover in 2013, hoping for protection against the violent attacks that occurred during the brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule.
However, the continued drumming of the Islamic State's attacks on Christian targets, including suicide attacks on cathedrals in Cairo and Alexandria in 2016 and 2017, has hampered this support.
"I've seen many Christians from different classes disillusioned by the government and Sisi," analyst Kaldas said. "Life has become more difficult and safety has not been delivered."
Christians feel threatened from all sides. Following the attack on Friday, an article published on a website of the Muslim Brotherhood said Mr. Sisi had staged the events to gain public sympathy – a baseless allegation made regularly by followers of the Brotherhood after attacks on Christians.