Bombs exploded at two Coptic churches in different cities in northern Egypt as worshippers were celebrating Palm Sunday, killing at least 43 people and wounding about 100 in an assault claimed by the Islamic State group.

The blasts came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit the Arab world's most populous country, which has been beset by extremist violence against its minority Christians.

In the first attack, a bomb went off inside St. George's Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78, officials said.

A man sits at right as a suicide bomber detonates at the front gates into St. Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo / AP
A man sits at right as a suicide bomber detonates at the front gates into St. Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo / AP

A few hours later, a suicide bomber rushed toward St. Mark's Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, killing at least 16 people and wounding 41, the Interior Ministry said.

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CCTV images broadcast on Egyptian channels shows a man in a blue pullover approach the main gate to St. Mark's but being turned away and directed toward a metal detector. The man then passes a female police officer chatting to another woman, and enters a metal detector before an explosion engulfs the area.

Pope Tawadros II had held Palm Sunday services at the cathedral, but his aides said he had escaped unharmed. The timing of the attack raised the question of whether the bomber had sought to assassinate the pope, leader of one of the world's oldest Christian communities.

IS claimed the attacks via its Aamaq news agency, after having recently warned that it would step up violence against Egypt's Christians.

CBC TV showed footage from inside the church in Tanta, where people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.

"After the explosion, everything became dark from the smoke," said Edmond Edward, attending services with his brother, Emil, who was wounded and leaned on him for support at a nearby hospital, his head covered in bandages.

"There was a clear lapse in security, which must be tightened from now on to save lives," he said. He added that the blast appeared to be centred near the altar and that the priest leading the service, Father Daniel, was wounded.

An ambulance outside Saint Mark's Cathedral following a suicide bombing that killed several people, just after Coptic Pope Tawadros II finished services. Photo / AP
An ambulance outside Saint Mark's Cathedral following a suicide bombing that killed several people, just after Coptic Pope Tawadros II finished services. Photo / AP

Susan Mikhail, whose apartment balcony across the street has a clear view of the church and its front yard, said the explosion violently shook her building.

"Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes," she told The Associated Press. Later, the more seriously wounded were carried out by other survivors and taken to hospitals in private cars, she said.

Hundreds of residents gathered in the area, and church members blocked people - including journalists - from entering the church as police cordoned off the area.

Regional police chief Brig. Gen. Hossam Elddin Khalifa was fired over the incident, with Maj. Gen. Tarek Hassouna replacing him, state-run newspaper al-Ahram reported.

Pope Francis, marking Palm Sunday in St. Peter's Square, decried the bombings, expressing "deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation."

People search through debris after an explosion hit Saint Mark's Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt. Photo / AP
People search through debris after an explosion hit Saint Mark's Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt. Photo / AP

He is due to visit Egypt April 28-29.

President Donald Trump tweeted that he is "so sad to hear of the terrorist attack" against the US ally but added that he had "great confidence" that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, "will handle the situation properly." The two leaders met at the White House on April 3.

Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Egypt's Al-Azhar - the leading center of learning in Sunni Islam - also condemned the attacks, calling them a "despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents."

Both Israel and the Islamic Hamas movement ruling neighboring Gaza condemned the bombings as well.

The bombings added to fears that Islamic extremists who have long been battling security forces in the Sinai Peninsula are shifting their focus to civilians.

An Islamic State affiliate claimed a December suicide bombing at a Cairo church that killed about 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the northern Sinai that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country.

Relatives and onlookers gather outside a church after a bomb attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, Egypt. Photo / AP
Relatives and onlookers gather outside a church after a bomb attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, Egypt. Photo / AP

The militants recently released a video vowing to step up attacks against Christians, whom they regard as "infidels" empowering the West against Muslims.

Egypt has struggled to combat a wave of Islamic militancy since the 2013 military overthrow of an elected Islamist president.

The Sinai-based IS affiliate has mainly attacked police and soldiers, but has also claimed bombings that killed civilians, including the downing of a Russian passenger jetliner in the Sinai in 2015, which killed all 224 people aboard and devastated Egypt's tourism industry.

Egypt's Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. They have long complained of discrimination and that the government does not do enough to protect them.

Egyptian media had previously reported that the church in Tanta had been targeted before, with a bomb defused there in late March.

The Copts were largely supportive of the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and incurred the wrath of many of his followers, who attacked churches and other Christian institutions.

While the Copts have stood steadfast alongside the government, repeating the mantra that Egyptians were all being targeted by terrorists, an increase in attacks on Christians has tested that support.

Outside the Tanta hospital, 27-year-old carpenter Maged Saleh flew into a rage as blood streamed from his arm after he and his mother escaped the explosion.

"Where is the government?" he screamed at onlookers. "There is no government!"

Pope prays for victims

Pope Francis, who is due to visit Cairo on April 28-29, offered prayers for the victims.

"Let us pray for the victims of the attack unfortunately carried out today," he said in an Angelus prayer.

"May the Lord convert the heart of those who sow terror, violence and death and also the heart of those who make weapons and trade in them."

Copts, who make up about one tenth of Egypt's population of more than 92 million and who celebrate Easter next weekend, have been targeted by several attacks in recent months.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd after celebrating a Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo / AP
Pope Francis waves to the crowd after celebrating a Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo / AP

Jihadists and Islamists accuse Copts of supporting the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, which ushered in a deadly crackdown on his supporters.

In December, a suicide bombing claimed by IS killed 29 worshippers during Sunday mass in Cairo.

The group later released a video threatening Egypt's Christians with more attacks.

The bombing of the church within a compound that also holds the seat of the Coptic papacy was the deadliest attack against the minority in recent memory.

A spate of jihadist-linked attacks in Egypt's restive Sinai Peninsula, including the murder of a Copt in the city of El Arish whose house was also burned, have led some Coptic families to flee their homes.

About 250 Christians took refuge in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya after IS released a video in February calling for attacks on the religious minority.

Reacting before the second bombing in Alexandria, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid called the attack in Tanta "a failed attempt against our unity".

"Terrorism hits Egypt again, this time on Palm Sunday," he tweeted.

String of attacks

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail also condemned the attack, stressing Egypt's determination to "eliminate terrorism".

The Cairo-based Al-Azhar, an influential Sunni Muslim authority, said it aimed to "destabilise security and ... the unity of Egyptians".

Egypt's Copts have endured successive attacks since Morsi's ouster in July 2013. More than 40 churches were attacked nationwide in the two weeks after the deadly dispersal by security forces of two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo on August 14, 2013, Human Rights Watch said.

Amnesty International later said more than 200 Christian-owned properties were attacked and 43 churches seriously damaged, adding that at least four people were killed.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who as then army chief helped remove Morsi, has defended his security forces and accused jihadists of attacking Copts in order to divide the country.

In October 2011, almost 30 people - mostly Coptic Christians - were killed after the army charged at a protest outside the state television building in Cairo to denounce the torching of a church in southern Egypt.

In May that year, clashes between Muslims and Copts left 15 dead in the working-class Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba where two churches were attacked.

A few months earlier, the unclaimed bombing of a Coptic Church killed more than 20 people in Egypt's second city of Alexandria on New Year's Day.

- AP, news.com.au