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CAIRO (Reuters) - A military court has referred 36 defendants accused of taking part in deadly church bombings to Egypt's top religious authority for consideration of the death penalty, state television reported on Tuesday.

The defendants are suspected of involvement in bombings that hit three Coptic churches - one at Cairo's Coptic Cathedral in December 2016 that killed at least 25, and two that hit churches in Alexandria and Tanta on the same day in April 2017 and killed more than 45 people.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for all three attacks.

Egypt requires that courts refer cases to the Grand Mufti for consideration of the death penalty ahead of a final verdict although his decision is non-binding.

The court is expected to issue a verdict on May 15 and 11 of the 36 are being tried in absentia, a lawyer involved in the case told Reuters.

Public prosecutor Nabil Sadek said previously that some of the suspects held leadership positions in Islamic State and formed cells in Cairo and the southern province of Qena to carry out the church attacks.

Some of the defendants are also accused of carrying out an attack on a checkpoint in Egypt's Western Desert that killed at least eight policemen in 2017.

Egypt is facing a more than three-year-old insurgency led by Islamic State that intensified after general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led the military in overthrowing Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.

(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad, Haitham Ahmed, and Mostafa Hashem, Writing by Eric Knecht, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Reuters