An electrical fire erupted in an Egyptian Coptic Christian church during Mass on Sunday, causing a stampede and killing at least 41 people including many children. It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze. An initial investigation blamed an electric short-circuit, police said. Copts comprise about 10% of Egypt’s primarily Muslim population.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared on his Facebook page in the morning: “I have mobilised all state services to ensure that all measures are taken.” He later said he had “presented his condolences by phone” to Coptic Pope Tawadros II, who has been the head of the denomination in Egypt since 2012.
The electrical fire broke out just before 9 a.m. (0700 GMT) during Mass as 5,000 people gathered at the Coptic Abu Sifin church in the Imbaba neighbourhood.
“People were gathering on the third and fourth floor, and we saw smoke coming from the second floor. People rushed to go down the stairs and started falling on top of each other,” said Yasir Munir, a worshipper at the church.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry said a forensic examination showed that the fire began in the second-floor air conditioning as a result of an electrical malfunction.
Smoke inhalation was the main cause of death, it said. Families of those who died will receive 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,220), according to a cabinet statement.
Who Are Copts?
Religious minority Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. They make up at least 10 million of Egypt’s 103 million people. The minority has suffered attacks and complained of discrimination in the majority Muslim north African country, the Arab world’s most populous.
Copts have suffered deadly attacks by Islamist militants, particularly after Sisi overthrew former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, with churches, schools and homes burnt down. Copts complain they have been left out of key state positions and have deplored restrictive legislation for the construction of churches compared to that of mosques.