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Attack on Coptic Cathedral in Cairo Kills Dozens

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A nun surveyed the scene after a deadly bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo on Sunday.

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

CAIRO — A bomb ripped through a section reserved for women at Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral during Sunday morning Mass, killing at least 25 people and wounding 49, mostly women and children, Egyptian state media said.

The attack was the deadliest against Egypt’s Christian minority in years. Video from the blast site circulating on social media showed blood-smeared floors and shattered pews among the marble pillars at St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s Orthodox Christian church, where the blast occurred in a chapel adjacent to the main building.

As security officials arrived to secure the site, angry churchgoers gathered outside and hurled insults, accusing them of negligence.

“There was no security at the gate” one woman told reporters. “They were all having breakfast inside their van.”

A man asked: “You’re coming now after everything was destroyed?”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, although the attack bore the hallmark of Islamist militants fighting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who have previously targeted minority Christians over their perceived support for his government.

It was the second major attack in the Egyptian capital in three days, marking a jarring return to violence after months of relative calm. An Islamist militant group claimed responsibility for an explosion at a security check post on Friday that killed six police officers.

Mr. Sisi’s strongman rule has come under economic pressure in recent months amid high inflation and a sharp drop in the value of the Egyptian pound. Threatened street protests last month did not materialize, but the surging attacks may be an attempt to stoke opposition through violence.

Egyptian security officials, quoted by state media, said that an explosive device containing about 26 pounds of TNT had been placed in the chapel. It went off during Mass at about 10 a.m.

Most of the dead and wounded were women and children, said Sherief Wadee, an assistant minister for health, in a television interview. Mr. Sisi declared three days of mourning, state media said.

Hours later, hundreds of angry worshipers gathered at the church gates to register their anger. “We either avenge them or die like them,” they chanted. Tarek Attiya, a police spokesman, denied accusations of lax security at the church, and said the police had been operating a metal detector at the church entrance as normal.

A current of fury and frustration ran through the crowd gathered at the church gates, much of it directed at Mr. Sisi and his supporters in unusually strong terms.

At one point the crowd broke into chants of “the people demand the downfall of the regime” — the signature call of the mass uprising in 2011 that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The crowd pushed out Lamees el-Hadidi, a prominent TV presenter seen as sympathetic to Mr. Sisi, chanting “Leave! Leave!”, and called for the resignation of the interior minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar.

On Twitter, some Egyptians reported that TV stations broadcasting pictures of the crowd had cut out audio feeds that carried the anti-government chants.

Such public anger toward the government has become rare under Mr. Sisi, who has imprisoned thousands of opposition figures, cracked down on civil society and demonstrated little tolerance for the mildest street protests.

The blast coincided with a national holiday marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Shrapnel pockmarked the religious icons and stone walls inside the church, where witnesses gave graphic accounts of bloodied bodies strewn across the broken pews.

Hundreds of people streamed into nearby hospitals, frantically seeking news of the wounded. Officials said at least six children were among the dead.

Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic minority, who make up about one tenth of Egypt’s 90 million people, have suffered discrimination for decades but have come under violent attack since the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

In August 2013, supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood attacked hundreds of Coptic churches and houses in a backlash after the security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators in central Cairo.

The leadership of the Coptic Church, under Pope Tawadros II, has been a vocal supporter of Mr. Sisi, who was the first Egyptian leader to attend Coptic Christmas services in January 2015.

But most support for Mr. Sisi has stemmed from Egypt’s Muslim majority, and Islamist calls for retribution against Copts smack of sectarian prejudice.

Additionally, some Copts have rejected the church’s close association with Mr. Sisi’s government, saying their pope does not speak for their political views.

Tensions between Christians and Muslims are highest in Minya, the province in upper Egypt that saw the worst attacks on Copts in 2013.

Coptic officials in Minya have counted at least 37 attacks in the past three years, including incidents of torched houses and Copts being attacked on the streets.

“Once again the lives of Egypt’s Christian minority are dispensed with as objects within Egypt’s violent and cynical battle over power,” said Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East policy.

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