The assailant, armed with an explosive device and a machine gun, fired at the entrance of Saint Mina Coptic Church in Helwan, a southern suburb of Cairo, as he tried to cross a security barricade to enter the house of worship, Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Security forces arrested the perpetrator after shooting him, preventing further deaths, the interior ministry said, noting that the assailant is an active extremist who has taken part in previous assaults.
Islamic State on Friday claimed responsibility for the assault on the church. In a statement posted by its media arm Amaq, the extremist group said the attack was carried out by “covert units” but didn’t give any details.
The attack comes amidst ramped-up security measures by authorities around churches ahead of Coptic Christmas celebrations, which take place in early January. The largest religious minority in Egypt has suffered a sharp increase in attacks from extremists, including twin bomb attacks on Palm Sunday in April and one at Cairo’s main Coptic Christian cathedral compound last December that left dozens dead.
The Arab world’s most populous nation is grappling with an uptick in terror strikes, with militants targeting security forces and civilians in recent months. Hundreds were killed and injured last month when gunmen armed with explosives attacked a Sufi-linked mosque in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, the deadliest assault in the country’s modern history. Sufi rituals are deemed heretical by extremists.
The surge in militancy, especially against Coptic Christians, has triggered rare criticism against Presidential Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, even from Copts who make up some of his staunchest supporters. Egypt’s Christians make up about 10% of the country’s more than 90 million population.
The former military chief vowed to wipe out militancy when he ran for office in 2014, and continues to project himself as a regional bulwark against terrorism ahead of next year’s presidential race. But a yearslong crackdown on Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi has only bolstered the insurgents.
“Those desperate terrorist attempts won’t undermine the resolve of the Egyptians and their steadfast national unity, but will increase their determination to continue cleansing their country from terrorism and extremism,” Mr. Sisi’s office in a statement on Friday.
—Nour Alakraa in Berlin contributed to this article.