Egypt’s president has called for a state of emergency after suicide bombers struck hours apart at two Coptic churches in northern Egypt, killing 44 people and turning Palm Sunday services into scenes of horror and outrage at the government.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the violence, adding to fears extremists are shifting their focus to civilians, especially Egypt’s Christian minority.

People gather outside the church after the bomb attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta
People gather outside the church after the bomb attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta (Ahmed Hatem/AP)

The attacks in the northern cities of Tanta and Alexandria that also left 126 people wounded came at the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter, and just weeks before Pope Francis is due to visit.

It was the single deadliest day for Christians in decades and the worst since a bombing at a Cairo church in December killed 30 people.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called for a three-month state of emergency late on Sunday night.

The army chief-turned-president also sent elite troops across the country to protect key installations and accused unidentified countries of fuelling instability, saying “Egyptians have foiled plots and efforts by countries and fascist, terrorist organisations that tried to control Egypt”.

People gather outside the church after the bomb attack in the Nile Delta town of Tanta
The attack took place on Palm Sunday, the start of the Holy Week leading up to Easter (Ahmed Hatem/AP)

The attacks highlighted the difficulties facing Mr el-Sissi’s government in protecting Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

“Where is the government?” screamed an angry Maged Saleh, who rushed to the church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta where his mother escaped the carnage. “There is no government!”

People clean up debris the explosion at Saint Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria
People clean up debris the explosion at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria (Hazem Gouda/AP)

The first bomb exploded inside St George’s Church in Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78, officials said, overturning pews, shattering windows and staining the whitewashed walls with blood.

Video from inside the church broadcast by CBC TV showed people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.

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 17 people and wounding 48.

CCTV images showed a man with a blue sweater tied over his shoulders approaching the main gate to St Mark’s and then being turned away by security and directed toward a metal detector.

He passed a female police officer talking to another woman, and entered a metal detector before an explosion engulfed the area.

The Health Ministry said six Muslims were among the dead in Alexandria.

Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church leader, 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 him.

Pope Francis, who is due to visit Egypt on April 28-29, marked Palm Sunday in St Peter’s Square by expressing “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic church and all of the dear Egyptian nation.”

IS said in a statement two Egyptian suicide bombers named Abu Ishaq al Masri and Abu al Baraa al Masri carried out the church attacks and vowed to continue attacks against Christians.

“What happened is a dangerous indicator that shows how easy it is to attack a large gathering of people in different places,” said researcher Ishaq Ibrahim with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.