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By Declan Walsh – The New York Times

Egypt said on Sunday that it had killed 19 militants linked to an ambush that left seven Christian pilgrims dead, as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi scrambled to respond to a surge of Christian anger against his government.

The Interior Ministry said Egyptian forces had killed the militants during a chase through a mountainous area in the desert west of the ancient monastery where gunmen opened fire on three buses filled with pilgrims on Friday.

Six of the seven pilgrims killed in the attack came from the same extended family, Coptic Orthodox officials said.

The announcement on Sunday was accompanied by graphic photographs of bloodied bodies lying in the sand. But it offered few details about the circumstances of the raid, including its timing or whether the government had experienced any casualties.

Egypt routinely publicizes such raids, yet questions persist about why the security forces are unable to stop militant attacks. Outrage over Friday’s attack — the deadliest against Christians in almost a year — was fanned by the fact that militants carried out a similar ambush at almost the same location in May 2017, killing 28 pilgrims.

At a funeral in Minya on Saturday, hundreds of mourners jeered loudly and wagged their fingers after a Coptic bishop publicly thanked the security forces and government officials.

In the attack on Friday, gunmen opened fire on three buses soon after they left the Monastery of St. Samuel, in the desert south of Cairo, killing the seven people in one bus and wounding 19 others in total, according to Coptic Church officials.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility, saying on its Amaq news service that the attack had been in retaliation for the arrest of “our chaste sisters.” It did not elaborate.

Egypt’s State Information Service called the attack “a desperate attempt” that showed the group’s weakness. But it also renewed doubts about the effectiveness of Egyptian strategy against the powerful local Islamic State affiliate, which has expanded beyond its Sinai stronghold in recent years to attack Christians in churches and major cities and outside monasteries.

“The reality is that the Islamic State has successfully executed an attack on the same road, next to the same monastery, one year apart,” said Timothy E. Kaldas, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “That really calls into question the quality of government efforts to enhance security, particularly in Minya, where the Christian minority has been targeted relentlessly.”

In Rome, Pope Francis denounced the violence. “I pray for the victims, pilgrims killed just because they were Christian,” he told worshipers at St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.

The attack coincided with the World Youth Forum, a high-profile event that Mr. Sisi hosts every year in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, and that is an important part of his efforts to soften the image of his authoritarian rule.

On Sunday morning, Mr. Sisi stressed that Egyptians should be free to worship as they please, and reiterated his commitment to fighting discrimination.

Critics point out that freedom of religion remains in an uncertain state under Mr. Sisi. Construction of Christian churches is subject to onerous government restrictions. Muslim mobs have attacked Christians in Minya governorate, the site of Friday’s attack and home to many of Egypt’s estimated 10 million Christians. The authorities have arrested some atheists and barred others from leaving the country.

The Coptic Orthodox leadership, and many Christians, threw their support behind Mr. Sisi after he rode 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.

But the steady drumbeat of Islamic State attacks against Christian targets, including suicide bombings at cathedrals in Cairo and Alexandria in 2016 and 2017, have eroded that support.

I’ve seen a lot of Christians from different classes become disillusioned with the government and with Sisi,” said Mr. Kaldas, the analyst. “Life has gotten more difficult, and security has not been delivered.”

Christians feel under threat from all sides. After the attack on Friday, an article posted to a Muslim Brotherhood website said that Mr. Sisi had orchestrated the events to win public sympathy — a baseless claim regularly made by Brotherhood supporters after attacks on Christians.


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