CAIRO — Gunmen believed to be Islamist extremists killed at least seven Coptic Christian pilgrims and wounded 16 on Friday, ambushing two buses near a remote desert monastery south of Cairo, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibilty, but the shooting was almost identical to several others against Christians by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Egypt — including one on the same stretch of road in May 2017.
The attack appeared to a signal a resumption of the group’s campaign to sow sectarian divisions in Egypt, ending a lull in violence since the last major attack on Copts, in December 2017.
Gunmen opened fire on two buses, killing seven people in one and wounding nine in the other, officials said. Father Boles Halim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, said he expected the toll to rose.
A video circulating on Facebook from the site of the attack showed a man slumped over the steering wheel of a bus. Two other bloodied, inert figures lay on the back seats. A door of the vehicle, apparently ripped from its hinges and covered in blood, lay on the ground.
The Interior Ministry said the attackers appeared to have used a secondary road to approach the bus in the vicinity of the ancient monastery.
The pilgrims were returning from a trip to the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in Egypt’s western desert, Coptic leaders said. In May 2017, gunmen wearing military fatigues opened fire on three buses that were traveling in a convoy toward the same monastery, killing at least 28 people. Some victims died from a single gunshot, apparently executed by the roadside.
Visits to desert monasteries, which have surged in number in the past 50 years, play a central part in the religious practice of many Egyptian Copts, who make up an estimated 10 percent of the country’s population.
The Copts have also been staunch supporters of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, although their backing has been shaken by the wave of violent attacks in the past two years.
In a statement, Mr. Sisi condemned the attack as an act of “black terrorism” carried out by forces that were “seeking to undermine the cohesive fabric of the homeland.” He vowed to find and prosecute the perpetrators.
The attacks on Christians are viewed as an attempt by the Islamic State to widen its campaign of violence beyond Sinai, where the group has been fighting the Egyptian military for years, and to try to widen religious divisions in Egyptian society, much as it did in Iraq and Syria.
In the past two years, Islamist suicide bombers have hit prominent churches in Cairo, Alexandria and Tanta, a city in the Nile Delta, killing at least 100 people.
But the worst act of sectarian bloodshed, in November 2017, targeted fellow Muslims. Dozens of militants opened fire on a mosque in Sinai affiliated with the Sufi strain of Islam, which extremists view as heretical. The militants killed a t least 311 people, in the deadliest act of terrorism in Egypt’s modern history.
In the past year, tighter security around Christian places of worship and the capture of high-level militant commanders, including one apprehended last month in Libya, led to a sharp reduction in Islamist attacks.
But the attack on Friday signaled that a deadly threat remains.