CAIRO – A fire tore through a packed Egyptian Coptic Orthodox church in greater Cairo early Sunday, setting off a stampede and killing at least 41 people, including several children and the church’s bishop. The blaze added to the trauma of a beleaguered Christian minority and raised questions in a country long criticized for its fire-safety and building standards.
Worshippers had gathered for Sunday prayers at Abu Sefein Church – one of the largest in the municipality of Giza – when the blaze broke out around 9 a.m. local time, sending people fleeing to the roof and windows to seek safety.
Footage shared on social media and verified by The New York Times showed churchgoers screaming for help from windows as thick smoke poured out from the building. People could be seen in other footage trapped on the church’s roof as flames spread around them.
The fire appeared to have been caused by a faulty air-conditioning unit on the second floor of the multistoried building, which also housed classrooms, Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement. The country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, said he had ordered an investigation into the blaze.
Among the dead was the church’s bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, according to a 19-year-old volunteer who identified himself only as Youssef and said he had helped take away the bishop’s body.
Father Mikhael Guirguis, deputy leader of the Northern Giza Archdiocese, told a church-affiliated TV station that he had seen the bodies of children after the blaze. Another priest at a nearby church who also spoke to the same TV station said children attending church services had been moved to the top floor of the building when the fire broke out, rather than being evacuated.
Dozens of people were also injured. The majority of the deaths and injuries were the result of smoke inhalation and the stampede as people tried to flee the burning building, the Health Ministry said.
The Interior Ministry later said that the blaze had been brought under control.
Egypt has been repeatedly plagued in recent years by fires that spiral into mass casualty events, drawing criticism of the government’s emergency response as well as its fire-safety standards and regulations.
In 2002, at least 370 people were killed when a fire broke out on an overnight train speeding through the expanse of upper Egypt as flames spread from car to car. In 2005, at least 31 people died in a blaze at a state-owned theater in the city of Beni Suef after a candle fell during a production of “Hamlet.”
In 2008, a fire gutted the Upper House of Egypt’s Parliament, injuring at least 10 people. A blaze at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people in March 2021. And two separate hospital fires – in 2020 and 2021 – killed a total of nine coronavirus patients in the cities of Alexandria and Giza.
After Sunday’s fire, some residents of Imbaba, the densely packed neighborhood that is home to the church, criticized the response of the government and emergency services. One woman said in footage shared from the scene by Al Jazeera that emergency services did not arrive for 2 1/2 hours. But others said that emergency response workers had arrived within 15 minutes and quickly put out the flames.
The new health minister, Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, on Sunday defended officials’ emergency response time, saying that crews had arrived at the site of the fire within minutes.
Footage from outside one of the hospitals where patients were being treated showed an angry crowd. The source of their ire was not immediately clear.
Later Sunday, relatives held a funeral Mass for the victims at a church in the Warraq neighborhood. The bodies were taken from hospitals to a church there for the ceremony.
Coptic Christians make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 100 million, which is mostly Sunni Muslim. The minority group had frequently been the target of widespread discrimination and violent attacks, including by the Islamic State group’s branch in Egypt’s Sinai province.
For decades, Christians in Egypt have also complained that government restrictions on the construction, renovation and repair of churches have been part of a larger pattern of discrimination that relegated them to second-class citizenship and left many of their houses of worship in disrepair.
Legislation dating to 1934 prohibits churches from being built near schools and government buildings, and building permits have traditionally been issued only by presidential decree. The government has historically viewed church projects as a potential security issue that must be tightly managed, in part because of the country’s history of sectarian clashes, particularly in poor and rural areas, according to a 2018 report by the Project for Middle East Democracy, a U.S.-based research institute.
As a result, thousands of churches have been built without official authorization, often in flagrant violation of basic fire-safety standards. The building that went up in flames Sunday was turned into a church without a permit, according to Seif Ibrahim, 66, a carpenter. who lives in the building next door. It wasn’t until a few years later that the church was licensed, he added.
Under pressure from Egypt’s Christian minority, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi introduced a law in 2016 that aimed to overhaul such regulations. Though the law was hailed at the time as a crucial first step in ending decades of discrimination, its implementation has since been marred by dysfunction and slow bureaucracy.
After the blaze Sunday, el-Sissi spoke by phone with the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, and offered his condolences to the victims and their families, according to a statement from the president’s office.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” el-Sissi said in a statement on Twitter. “I directed all concerned state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures.”
The government announced that the families of those who died in the blaze would receive 100,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $5,223), and the injured would receive 20,000 pounds (about $1,004), according to a statement by the country’s Cabinet.
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