Relatives of killed Coptic Christians grieve by the coffins during the funeral at Abu Garnous Cathedral in the north Minya town of Maghagha on 26 May. Masked gunmen attacked a bus of Coptic Christians south of the Egyptian capital, killing at least 28 people.

Gunmen opened fire and killed at least 28 Coptic Orthodox Christians – some reports say up to 35 – and wounded about 25 others; the Copts were traveling to Ascension Day services at the Monastery of St. Samuel in Minya, southern Egypt.

Bishop Ermia, General Bishop and President of the Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center in Cairo, confirmed on his Twitter account that the slain Christians from Naslet Hanna village of El-Fashn and other towns in the Minya and Beni Suef governorates were travelling on two buses to celebrate the Coptic Feast of the Ascension, which falls 40 days after Easter.

The convoy was stopped at 9.30am on a remote desert road near El Idwa, close to the border between the Minya and Beni Suef provinces, by masked attackers armed with machine guns.

According to the Egyptian health ministry, eight to 10 masked attackers wearing military uniforms blocked the Christians’ vehicles as they were passing through the Minya region, about 220km (140 miles) south of Cairo and home to a sizeable Coptic minority.

Fr. Azra Fakhry, Vicar of the Maghagha and El-Idwa Archdiocese, told World Watch Monitor that eight Coptic workers from Deir Al-Garnous village of Maghagha, who were traveling in a pick-up truck to work at the monastery, had joined the bus convoy. When the militants intercepted their truck and two buses at gunpoint, they forced all the Copts to give over their jewellery, money and mobile phones.

They then ordered the Christians to convert to Islam, Fr. Fakhry said: “Bear witness that there is no god to be worshipped but Allah, and that Mohammed is the messenger of Allah,” they demanded. When the Copts refused, saying, “We are Christians,” the attackers opened fire, shooting most of their victims in the head. A number of children were confirmed among the dead, and all eight men in the truck were killed.

No immediate claim for the attack has been made, although survivors of the attack said the black flag of the so-called Islamic State was displayed on the attackers’ 4×4 vehicles. They were reported to be in three vehicles.

Continuing deadly assaults

The latest attack comes in the wake of a series of deadly assaults this year against Egypt’s embattled Coptic Christian minority, who constitute about 10% of Egypt’s population of 91 million.

After twin bombings of Coptic churches that  killed 49 during packed Palm Sunday worship services in early April, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered a national state of emergency. Coptic Pope Tawadros II had just celebrated Mass minutes before the cathedral attack in Alexandria, along the Mediterranean coast. The other bombing struck a church in Tanta, Egypt’s fifth largest populated area, between Cairo and Alexandria. Only days before the Tanta bombing, police had defused a similar bomb device in the church before it exploded.

Islamic State released a propaganda video in February, vowing to wipe out Egypt’s Coptic Christians and “liberate Cairo.”  A local IS affiliate known as Sinai Province has attempted to impose its hard-line interpretation of Islam on Egypt’s North Sinai population around Al-Arish. Hundreds of Christians fled the area and re-located to Port Said in late February and March, after the Islamists posted videos and leaflets telling Copts to leave the area or be killed. To date this year, eight Copts have been targeted and brutally murdered in the area.

Egyptian Christians have long complained that the government does not take their security concerns seriously. For their part, officials have blamed violent incidents on foreign-influenced extremists.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights recorded 77 sectarian attacks on Copts in the Minya province alone between 2011 and 2016, in addition to scores of vandalism incidents at churches and schools.

However, Al-Azhar, the centre of Islamic Sunni learning in Cairo, announced on 13 May that it would form a committee to draft a new law for submission to the Egyptian Parliament, to confront hatred and violence in the name of religion.

“I am heartbroken by the news of another awful attack on men, women and children, murdered because of their faith in Jesus Christ,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in a written statement on the day of the killings. “Today we stand with all those who fear for their lives because of their faith. We stand with Pope Tawadros and all the Christians of Egypt, in prayer and solidarity.”