Coptic leader criticizes Egypt's restrictions on building churches after deadly fire

CAIRO — After an electrical fire swept through a tiny Coptic Orthodox church in central Cairo on Sunday and killed 41 worshippers, Egypt...

CAIRO — After an electrical fire swept through a tiny Coptic Orthodox church in central Cairo on Sunday and killed 41 worshippers, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered the military to immediately renovate the building.

Under the watch of soldiers, dozens of workers worked through the night, removing charred beams and broken pipes, and repainting the walls and the iron cross atop the cramped four-story building wedged between shops and the apartments. On Monday evening, the exterior of Abu Sefein Church, at least, looked newly constructed.

The government also offered condolence payments.

But that swift action hasn’t stopped the patriarch of Egypt’s 10 million Coptic Orthodox Christians from expressing frustration on Tuesday that the Middle East’s largest Christian community has been squeezed by decades of government regulations limiting the number and size of churches in this predominantly Muslim country.

“The restrictions have led to the construction of small churches that do not correspond to the needs of Christians,” Pope Tawadros II said Tuesday in an unusual statement of implied criticism. He called on authorities to either move the 12,000-square-foot Abu Sefein Church to a larger space or allow it to expand to accommodate the large number of Christians in the neighborhood.

His statement was softened by praise for the response from Mr. el-Sisi and the Civil Defense Forces and noted that the restrictions had begun under previous governments. But in a country where any criticism of the government by Christian leaders is extremely rare, it still speaks volumes.

Among the 41 dead are 18 children and the bishop who was leading the Divine Liturgy when the fire broke out in the church in the popular district of Imbaba. Most died of smoke inhalation or were trampled as they tried to get from the fourth floor, where the service was being held, to the exit of the ground floor, a spokesman for the office said on Tuesday. ‘Coptic Orthodox Church, Reverend Moussa Ibrahim.

Some of those who survived escaped through windows or the roof.

Father Ibrahim said around 100 people had gathered for Sunday service when the fire broke out, meaning nearly half of all those present had perished. Church officials initially said up to 500 people were present at the time of the fire.

The Home Office is still investigating the cause of the fire. But church officials said it started shortly after a generator tripped during a power outage. The generator exploded when power returned during Sunday service.

“The fire affected the entire power grid and the smoke was everywhere,” said Coptic Church spokesman Father Ibrahim, adding that the entire power system shorted out at the same time.

The semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper said the government’s renovation after the fire included improvements to the electrical system with the installation of higher capacity cables.

Father Ibrahim denied a testimony that the church’s main door had been locked at the time of the fire, preventing worshipers from escaping.

Coptic Christians trace their roots to the ancient Egyptians, and the country’s churches are a mix of cathedrals resulting from grand gestures of government solidarity and tiny makeshift churches in poorer areas.

Electrical fires broke out at two other Coptic churches in Egypt on Monday and Tuesday, one in Cairo and the other in Minya province a few hours south, according to government and local officials. No casualties were reported. The Minya church, which a church official said was empty at the time, appeared in videos to be heavily damaged.

But the three fires in as many days reflect the general state of disrepair of buildings across Egypt, where there is often substandard construction and little enforcement of safety standards.

Cairo, the Egyptian capital, is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and the Imbaba district is made up of narrow streets filled with shops and apartment buildings overlooking a tangle of street vendors.

Abu Sefein Church operated unofficially until after 2016 when its church status was legalized, Father Ibrahim said. That same year, Mr el-Sisi passed a law removing many restrictions on building and renovating churches, but it left much of that power to the whims of local authorities, who can block permits for churches. churches.

Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, said Abu Sefein was granted a license in 2019, but because it was not purpose-built and limited in size, the church grew upwards.

The 2021 U.S. Department of State Religious Freedom Report in Egypt noted that the size of new churches allowed depends on the government’s determination of the “number and needs” of Christians in the area. He said building churches is subject to more government scrutiny than building new mosques.

Egypt has always been one of the main centers of Sunni Islam in the region. At a wake on Monday at a parish hall for three children killed in the fire, the call to prayer from a nearby mosque’s loudspeaker drowned out the priest’s sermon.

Tensions between Christian and Muslim communities in Egypt have largely been centered in rural villages, many of them in Minya province, which has the highest percentage of Christians in the country. In some villages, Christians who have been denied permission by local governors to build churches have no choice but the streets to hold religious services for funerals and weddings, according to Minya Christians.

Major General Mohamed Nabil Omar, a former director of civil defence, said all places of worship as well as other buildings must have emergency exits, as well as security inspections every one to three years.

Neither the government nor church officials would comment on the findings of the investigation so far, or whether or when the building’s wiring was last inspected.

“If the government decides today to close all buildings deemed unsafe according to official reports, three-quarters of Egypt will be closed,” General Omar said.

Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Coptic leader criticizes Egypt's restrictions on building churches after deadly fire
Coptic leader criticizes Egypt's restrictions on building churches after deadly fire
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