Media reports say the Islamic State (IS) extremist group claimed responsibility for bombing two Egyptian churches as worshippers gathered to mark Palm yesterday, killing at least 44 people in the deadliest attacks on the Coptic Christian minority in recent memory.  Palm Sunday is one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, marking Jesus's triumphant entrance to Jerusalem.

The attacks followed a Cairo church bombing in December and came weeks before a planned visit by Catholic Pope Francis intended to show support for Egypt's Christian minority.

The first bombing at the Mar Girgis church in Tanta city north of Cairo killed 27 people, the Egyptian health ministry was cited as saying by media outlets.

Emergency services had scrambled to the scene when another blast rocked Saint Mark's church in Alexandria where Coptic Pope Tawadros II had been leading a Palm Sunday service.

Seventeen people including at least four police officers were killed in that attack, which the interior ministry said was caused by a suicide bomber who blew himself up when prevented from entering the church.

The ministry said Tawadros was unharmed, and a church official said he left before the explosion.

At least 78 people were wounded in Tanta and 40 in Alexandria, the health ministry said.

A UN Security Council statement condemned the bombings as “heinous” and “cowardly.”

Egyptian officials denounced the violence as an attempt to sow divisions, and Francis sent his “deep condolences” to Tawadros.

IS claimed two Egyptian suicide bombers carried out both attacks and threatened further attacks in a statement published on social media.

After the bombings, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered military deployments to guard "vital and important infrastructure", his office said.

Pope Francis, who is due in 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.

“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.