18 children killed in fire at Egyptian Coptic Orthodox church

CAIRO — The Coptic church was so close to the apartment where a family of believers lived in a working-class district of Cairo that the ...


CAIRO — The Coptic church was so close to the apartment where a family of believers lived in a working-class district of Cairo that the parents could not imagine anything happening to their three children when they went together at mass or at school.

But that sense of security crumbled around the family on Sunday, when Edward el-Sayed visited the smoldering ruins of Abu Sefein Church and found his children cowering motionless behind the altar – three of 41 victims of a devastating disaster. Fire.

Fadi el-Sayed, a 10-year-old boy, and his sisters, Jumana el-Sayed, 9, and Mary el-Sayed, 5, were among 18 children killed in the fire, which ripped through the modest church in the densely populated neighborhood after a generator exploded, said the children’s aunt, Mary Hosni.

“My darlings hid behind the altar because they were scared,” Ms Hosni, 27, said speaking at a vigil for children at a church hall on Monday. “They were waiting for someone to save them.”

The children’s mother, Huweida Hosni, sat at the wake, her eyes closed and her head leaning against the wall, as a priest spoke about the children’s return to God. Her surviving child, a 16-year-old girl, clung to her mother’s arm.

Mary Hosni, a student, said neither parent had been to mass on Sunday but the children went to the church most days, which also housed a community center where Mary attended daycare.

She showed a photo of her nephew, posing with a serious expression on her face in what appeared to be new clothes. “He loved to draw,” she says. One of her nieces, sporting a big smile, twirled around in a black and white skirt.

“They were very calm children, like angels,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “They liked to pray. Both girls liked to help their father and bring him things.

The Reverend Moussa Ibrahim, spokesman for the church, said all of the children who died on Sunday were between 5 and 13 years old. He said the fire came from an electric generator used at the church, which like many Coptic places of worship was in poor condition, witnesses said. He said he could not provide further details of the fire while the fire was under investigation.

Copts have long complained of being discriminated against on the basis of their religion. One aspect of this discrimination is government restrictions on building, renovating and repairing churches in this predominantly Muslim country. These restrictions left many buildings in disrepair and made them fire hazards.

However, faulty wiring is also common in Egypt and other countries in the region, as are devastating fires. According to witnesses, there did not appear to be an emergency exit at the church, which could have increased the death toll.

Father Ibrahim, the spokesman for the church said Abu Sefein initially got a license as a small service building and then recently received permission to operate as a church.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is supported by many Egyptian Christians because they feel a bulwark against Islamist groups that could threaten them, in 2016 introduced a law intended to revise regulations preventing many churches from be allowed. But it gives authority to provincial governors, who have refrained from granting licenses in some cases where they believe they would stoke sectarian tensions, according to some church officials.

After Sunday’s fire, Mr Sisi’s government announced payments for the families of the victims and sent in the army to repair the church.

Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said on Sunday the families of the victims would receive payments worth about $5,000 for each person killed and about $1,000 for each person injured.

On Monday evening, pews and chairs removed from the damaged building were piled up on a nearby street corner as workers watched by soldiers continued to remove debris from the four-story building. A workman loaded the debris from the building onto a cart pulled by an emaciated white donkey.

The scorched white cross on the roof had already been cleaned on Monday, but a barefoot worker was hanging from scaffolding to repaint the building dark brown and beige.

In the close-knit and impoverished district of Cairo where the fire broke out, Muslim residents were among those who helped rescue survivors of the blaze. Muslim residents said their Christian neighbors made up an important part of the community and mourned Sunday’s deaths, including the bishop who said Mass at the service, Abdul Masih Bakhit.

“He always sent sweets on Christian holidays,” said Seif Ibrahim, a Muslim carpenter who lived near the church, referring to the bishop. “They were respectable people.”

There has been far less friction between Muslims and Christians in Cairo than in other parts of Egypt where there are larger proportions of Christians. In Minya province, south of Cairo, churches in some villages are under police protection to prevent attacks by Muslim residents.

The Coptic Christians of Egypt are particularly observant. Ms Hosni, whose nieces and nephew died in the fire, said the children had fasted on a holy day they planned to celebrate at Abu Sefein Church – named after a third-century Christian martyr who was tortured and killed in what is present – day Turkey. The church houses relics of the saint, who was a Roman army commander who converted to Christianity.

On Sunday evening, the Coptic community wrestled with the enormity of the tragedy; there were so many victims that the funeral, long processions of mourners weeping beside white coffins, was to take place Sunday at two separate churches.

Salwa Sadek, a member of the Coptic community in Cairo, said at a kindergarten in another church that she once taught three of the 18 children who died – an 8-year-old girl and her 5-year-old brother, and another 8 year old boy.

“I couldn’t believe it really happened,” said Ms. Sadek, distraught.

“The situation is very difficult,” said Reverend Daoud Ibrahim, another Coptic priest, who celebrated more than 17 funerals at the Church of the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael in the nearby neighborhood of Al- Warraq. “In situations like this, you don’t know what to do.”

It was not immediately clear where the children died, but some witnesses described rescuing children from the floor above the shrine, where the nursery and classrooms were located. The church spokesman, who was not in Cairo when the fire broke out, said they all died in the shrine itself.

Fire exploded as worshipers gathered for mass in the small building, where the generator was running after the power cut. When power returned, witnesses said the generator exploded, followed by the explosion of an air conditioning unit, sparking a fire that engulfed the four-story church and sparked a stampede of worshippers.

Most of the deaths and injuries are due to smoke inhalation and stampede, The Egyptian Ministry of Health said.

The tragedy has also raised questions in a country whose government has long been criticized for lax security standards and poor oversight. The country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, said he had ordered an investigation in the fire.

Father Ibrahim, whose Church of the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael is known as the site of both a miracle declared by the Coptic church – a 2019 apparition of the Virgin Mary – and a tragedy – the drive-by shooting of a wedding party in 2013 – said those who died in the fire are now considered martyrs.

“They came to pray,” he said, to give offerings to God, “and they became the offerings.”



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