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At Least 28 Dead, Many Wounded, After Attack On Christians In Egypt


The plight of Christians in Egypt appears to be getting more dire after an attack there today. Gunmen ambushed two buses of Egyptian Coptic Christians heading to a monastery to pray. The attackers opened fire, killing more than two dozen people and wounding many others. In response, Egypt's president says he ordered strikes on a militant base in neighboring Libya. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Cairo. And, Jane, what more have we learned about the attack today?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, it was aimed at busloads of Christians who were going from Minya province and another province to an ancient monastery. Now it's Friday, the start of the weekend. And because Sunday is a working day, the roads there are often full of Christians who are taking taxis, taking buses to get to a church or to a monastery to pray.

These ones were ambushed on a desert road about 10 miles from the monastery, according to security sources. They say the gunmen opened fire - they were wearing masks at the time - and riddled those buses with bullets. State TV showed pictures of the buses with shattered windows and blood in the sand. There were demonstrations afterwards at some of the hospitals - people chanting that they would sacrifice their lives for their religion.

CORNISH: Now, I understand Egypt's president also gave a speech today. Can you tell us more about the government's reaction?

ARRAF: Absolutely. And this follows, we have to remember, the attack on Palm Sunday just before Easter - a suicide bombing in a cathedral and a church in Egypt. So after that one, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared a state of emergency. He went on national TV this evening to address the nation and said that he would not let this attack stand.

And, in fact, shortly after, the government announced that its air force had hit targets in eastern Libya in the city of Derna, where they've previously attacked targets they said were related to the beheadings of Egyptian Christians two years ago. In this one, the military has released a statement saying that the Egyptian government had learned that the targets it hit in Libya were actually involved in this attack - the attack on the buses in Minya province.

CORNISH: So to be clear, has anyone taken responsibility? Do we know what group was behind this attack?

ARRAF: No one has taken responsibility yet. But if you look at the way the attack was carried out - the planning, the execution - the government here believes that it has the hallmarks of an ISIS attack. And indeed, ISIS, after the suicide bombings on the church and cathedral last month, had said that it would continue its attacks on Christians.

CORNISH: Now, we had the Pope and President Donald Trump among those condemning today's attacks. For some context, just how large is the population of Christians in Egypt?

ARRAF: Well, it's a minority. But because Egypt is so big, it's the biggest Christian population in the Middle East. They are about 10 percent of the population, and that's roughly 9 million people. But this province - Minya province - they're more of a percentage than that. It's basically the heartland of the ancient Christian community here in Egypt.

Egypt is incredibly important to Christianity. It was an early center of Christianity. And it was here that the holy family, Mary and Joseph, brought the baby Jesus, according to the Bible, to Egypt. So the roots go down very, very deep. And Christians here - most of them are Coptic Christians who have come under increasing attack from ISIS and also local attacks, as well.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jane Arraf. She spoke to us from Cairo. Jane, thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.