Security tight as Egypt Copts prepare for Easter mass

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Egyptians pray during the Good Friday procession at the St. George church in Mahalla in northern Egypt on April 14, 2017

Egypt tightened security outside churches as Coptic Christians prepared for a subdued Easter mass on Saturday days after suicide bombers killed scores of people in two churches north of the capital.

Worshippers will pass through arduous checks outside churches after police, backed by the military, beefed up security following the Palm Sunday church bombings that killed 45 people in two cities north of Cairo.

The government had declared a state of emergency and called in the army to protect "vital" installations following the suicide bombings in Tanta and Alexandria, which were claimed by the Islamic State group.

Police have deployed in force since Friday creating a cordon outside churches for initial inspection, and worshippers will be searched again with metal detectors at church gates, interior ministry officials said.

The heightened security procedures include preventing cars from parking in streets adjacent to churches, according to the officials.

"Security has indeed improved so much as it seems the situation needed to be tightened up a lot," said Coptic Church spokesman Boulos Halim.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II will lead Easter mass in Cairo's Saint Mark's Cathedral, while the church said celebrations this year would be scaled back.

"Tanta and Alexandria created a big shock, for all of Egypt," Halim said.

Easter, which along with Christmas is one of Christianity's most important events, marks what followers believe was the resurrection of Christ on the third day after his crucifixion.

In Egypt, Copts break a 55-day fast abstaining from all animal products following Saturday's mass.

Sunday's bombings, the deadliest attack on Copts in recent memory, were the latest in a series of attacks against the Christians who make up around 10 percent of Egypt's 90 million people.

In December, an IS suicide bomber struck a Cairo church, killing 29 people.

Halim said the church will forgo Sunday morning's traditional celebrations, and instead members will visit the families of "martyrs" as well as those wounded in the blasts, including police officers.

"The happiness of resurrection helps us overcome feelings of pain," said Halim.

- Further attacks feared -

IS, which has waged an insurgency in the north of the Sinai Peninsula that has seen scores of attacks on security forces, has threatened further attacks on Copts.

One Copt who gave his name only as John said he will attend Easter mass despite the threat of attacks.

He plans to go to a church in the relative safety of the capital, but admitted "if I were somewhere else outside of Cairo, like a village, I would not want my relatives to go and I would be worried about attending".

Christians in a village south of Cairo had been attacked by Muslims after they tried to pray in an abandoned home on Thursday, after which a mob set fire to four homes nearby, according to police officials.

The village boasts several mosques, but Christians there have been prevented from building a church, Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told AFP.

"There is a general climate where Copts are being persecuted and unfortunately the state just tries to stop violence from spreading, they don't solve the root cause of the problem."

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