After deadly church fire, Egyptian neighborhood seeks answers

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GIZA, Egypt – Back roads in a working-class district of Greater Cairo turned into makeshift funeral homes on Monday as a community coped with the devastating aftermath of a church fire that killed 41 people, including many children.

In one family, a husband lost his wife and three children. In another, the parents – who are expecting their third child later this year – lost both sons.

Sunday morning’s fire tore through a small Coptic church that also housed a day care center in the crowded neighborhood of Imbaba, leaving parishioners and children trapped inside.

Officials attributed the tragedy at Abu Seifein Church to an electrical problem that set an air conditioner on fire, trapping congregants gathered on the upper floors of the four-story building in thick smoke.

Within hours, workers were already cleaning up the debris and repainting the charred walls of the building. But evidence of the disaster remained on Monday: a child’s tiny blackened sandal, abandoned on the interior steps of the church. Religious paintings, covered in soot, and wooden benches, piled in the street.

And in keeping with tradition, tents were hastily set up in front of house after house so that grieving families could receive friends and neighbors who had come to pay their respects.

State media reported that the Interior Ministry said the first ambulance arrived the scene just two minutes after being informed of the fire. Yet the bereaved relatives of the dead and injured angrily blamed emergency responders for being slow to arrive at the scene, which they said hampered the rescue process and caused more deaths.

Some witnesses described crowds gathering outside the burning church after the flames broke out, civilians trying to save those inside as they waited for official rescuers to arrive.

“What we’re saying is ‘God forgive the firefighters,'” said Ishak Henin, 61, a church deacon who was not present when the fire started but rushed there. down soon after. “If they had come earlier, they could have saved more people.”

Competing accounts of the official response add to the sense of hopelessness in Imbaba. This tragedy is the latest to hit Egypt’s minority Coptic community.

In 2011, amid social unrest, mobs burned several churches in the same neighborhood. Extremists have also targeted Coptic churches in terror attacks, including in 2016 and 2017. fortune for worship.

After Sunday’s fire, the Egyptian government promised compensation to the families of the victims and promised to repair quickly the church. In addition to those killed, more than a dozen people suffered burns and other injuries.

But Kheir Abdu, who was mourning the death of a sister-in-law, a niece and two nephews, said his aim was to prevent another disaster. Because President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has issued more permits for churches, “we really ask him that the government build a more suitable church for us.”

“If we renovate the same church, we don’t do anything,” Abdu added.

He stood outside a house with others trying to comfort the sole survivor of a family, a distraught husband and father named Bassem.

“His eyes are wide open and he’s not saying anything,” another insider said. “In a second, his wife and three children were buried at the same time.”

It was not immediately clear what fire prevention methods Abu Seifein Church had in place. Henin, the deacon at the church, said there were only fire extinguishers, no fire alarms, and the main exit was through the front door, which was made inaccessible by smoke and flames .

“We don’t have many places to build churches. That’s why we had to build a big building to build a church,” he said. “If we don’t learn from this experience, it could happen again.”

Some victims had been transported by ambulance on Sunday evening to a larger church nearby. Hundreds of people gathered there and cleared the way for pallbearers to carry coffins, some just a few feet long, inside. The burials continued for several hours.

Mary Hakeem lost her two sons, Kirollos and Bishoy. On Monday afternoon she was silent in a room of his house, eyes closed. A crowd of family members dressed in black surrounded him.

Eventually they helped her make her way outside where mourners had lined up in the alley to offer their condolences to her and her husband. A visitor unveiled a portrait of the two boys which showed them standing side by side in matching outfits and glasses, with an image of Jesus Christ superimposed behind them. The man lit two candles and then walked away.

The boys’ father, Youssef Samir, sat quietly, his eyes puffy with grief.

Samir’s aunt, Mariam Mohib, had traveled several hours to arrive in time for the funeral on Sunday evening.

“It was a shock to see the coffins arrive,” she said. “We didn’t know how to console the parents.

Relatives said the two brothers, who were in fourth and sixth grade, were exceptionally kind to each other and often linked arms to walk around the neighborhood and make deliveries from their home’s clothing store. dad. “Honestly, they were very genuine kids,” Hana Salib said.

One of the boys’ aunts, whose family lives in the same building, said her children were confused by the sudden disappearance of their favorite cousins.

“My 5-year-old son asked, ‘Are we not going to play with Bishoy anymore?’ said Riham Nasr.

Nasr struggled to explain why they wouldn’t.

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