EGYPT: 23 Christians killed in Cairo Cathedral bomb attack

A nun cries as she stands at the scene inside Cairo's Coptic cathedral, following a bombing, in Egypt December 11, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egypt is beginning three days of mourning for the 23 victims of yesterday’s bomb attack on a chapel attached to St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo.

Another 65 people were injured in the attack; as some of them are in a critical condition, the number of deaths is expected to rise. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, one of the deadliest attacks on Egyptian Christians in years. The attack took place at about 10am on Sunday 11 December, near the end of Mass in the Church of St Peter and St Paul in the Coptic Cathedral complex in Abbassiya district. A 12 kg TNT bomb exploded amid the rear benches on the southern side of the church, the side where women usually sit. All but three of the victims were women and children; security sources told Reuters that at least six children were among the dead.

“Traditionally, women and children sit on the right side of the church; on the left side are the men,” a local source told World Watch Monitor. “As it was a public holiday, the church was full. A woman carrying a heavy bag walked into the church, sat on the women’s side and put her bag on the floor. After a few minutes, she stood up and walked out, leaving the bag behind. A few minutes later there was a huge explosion.”

The victims’ blood was spattered everywhere, and the church building and crypt were badly damaged. Part of the ceiling caved in, windows were shattered, the iron-framed window nearest the explosion was wrenched off and blown outside, and the iconostasis, icons and wooden pews were destroyed. The main cathedral was undamaged.

The church was built in 1911 by the family of Boutros Ghali, Egypt’s prime minister from 1908 to 1910. His grandson Boutros Boutros-Ghali was UN Secretary General from 1992-1996. Members of the family are buried in the crypt.

As the death toll rose, nearby hospitals called for blood donations, and many Copts rushed to donate blood. Defence Minister Sidqy Sobhy ordered that the injured could be checked into military hospitals for treatment and surgery.

After the explosion, dozens of Christian protesters, joined by Muslims, gathered at the cathedral chanting against the attack. Many Copts believe the government is not doing enough to protect them from extremist attacks. They expressed anger at President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, saying his government had failed to protect them.

“Where was the security?” asked Mena Samir (25), standing at the metal gate of the church. “There were five or six security cars stationed outside so where were they when 12 kg of TNT was carried inside? They keep telling us ‘national unity, the crescent with the cross’. This time we will not shut up.”

By Sunday evening, the number of protesters had grown to several hundred, and a group of Muslim clerics joined them to show solidarity.

Attack condemned

President Sisi condemned the bombing and declared three days of national mourning. He called Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, while Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar offered their condolences to the Copts and called upon Egyptians to stand hand-in-hand to fight terrorists.

Al-Azhar, Egypt’s main Islamic centre of learning, condemned the “terrorist attack that occurred this morning in the Saint Mark Cathedral in Abbassiya, which led to killings and injuries” and expressed full solidarity with the Egyptian Church and Egyptian Copts in the face of “terrorism.” In its statement, Al-Azhar said: “Targeting houses of worship and the killing of the innocents are criminal acts that violate Islamic principles.” The statement also expressed condolences to the Coptic Orthodox Pope, to the families of the victims and to all the Egyptian people, wishing a speedy recovery for the injured.

Funerals

cairo-funeralToday, Monday 12 December, Pope Tawadros II led a funeral service for the victims at the Church of the Holy Virgin and St Athanasius in Cairo’s Nasr City district. The Pope, who was in Athens on a pastoral visit to Greece, cut short his visit after learning of the attack, and took the first EgyptAir flight home on Sunday evening. Speaking at the church funeral, Pope Tawadros prayed: “God, protect us and your people from the conspiracies of the evil ones”.

Pope Tawadros called for unity during the service, saying the bombing was an attack “against the nation… We know that whoever has done this does not belong to Egypt, its history or its civilisation.”

The church service was attended by relatives only, according to a statement from the church. It was followed by a state funeral at the Unknown Soldier Memorial, also in Nasr City, attended by President Sisi and senior state officials.

Who is responsible?

It is thought that the bombing was carried out by Muslim extremists. Islamist groups are waging an insurgency against the Egyptian state in North Sinai and sporadic attacks have occurred in Cairo and other governorates since the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Some of Morsi’s supporters blame Christians for supporting his ousting.

Speaking after the state funeral, President Sisi stated that the attack had been carried out by a male suicide bomber whom he identified as 22-year-old Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammed Mustafa, and said three men and a woman were arrested in connection with the attack.

[Update 19 December: Islamic State claimed responsibility on 13 December.]

The bombing came two days after six police were killed and three others injured in a bomb attack on a police checkpoint in Giza. This attack was claimed by Hasm (“decisiveness”), a recently-emerged group the government says is a violent offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hasm, however, issued a statement condemning Sunday’s attack, calling it an example of “dirty hands extending to churches to kill women and children”.

The Muslim Brotherhood claims to be peaceful, but has been banned in Egypt as a terrorist organisation. Several exiled Muslim Brotherhood officials condemned the Cairo attack, as did militant groups within Egypt. Supporters of Islamic State, however, celebrated on social media.

Prayer Points

Christians in Egypt have asked for prayer:
a. for God’s comfort for those who lost loved ones and for full recovery of the injured.
b. for comfort and encouragement for the Christian community and God’s protection over his church in Egypt and other targets of attacks.
c. that the perpetrators will be found and brought to justice.

(Ahram, Guardian, Middle East Concern, Reuters, Watani, World Watch Monitor)