Fire at Coptic church in Cairo kills 41, injures 14

Burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs, and religious images are seen at the site of a fire at the Abu Sefein Coptic Church that killed at least 40 people and injured around 14 others, in the densely populated Imbaba district, Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, August 14, 2022. The church said the fire broke out during a service. The cause of the fire was initially unknown. According to the police, initial investigations indicated an electrical short circuit.

Tarek Wajeh | AP photo

A fire broke through a packed church during morning services in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, killing at least 41 worshipers and injuring 14.

The church quickly filled with thick black smoke, and witnesses said several trapped parishioners jumped from the upper floors to escape. “Suffocation, suffocation, all dead,” said a dismayed witness, who only partially named Abu Bishoy.

The cause of the fire in the Abu Sefein Church in the working-class district of Imbaba was initially unknown. According to the police, initial investigations indicated an electrical short circuit.

Footage from the scene circulated online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the fire while others carried victims to ambulances. Families were waiting for news of relatives who were at the church.

Witnesses said there were many children in the building when the fire broke out.

“There are children that we didn’t know how to get hold of,” Abu Bishoy said. “And we don’t know whose son this is or whose daughter this is. Is that possible?”

The country’s health minister blamed the deaths on smoke and a stampede as people tried to flee the fire. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.

Witness Emad Hanna said the church has two locations that are used as daycare centers and that a church worker managed to get many children out.

“We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see from the outside that the smoke was getting bigger and people wanted to jump from the top floor. … We found the children.”

Egypt’s Coptic Church and the country’s Health Ministry reported the death toll. The church said the fire broke out during a service. The church is located on a narrow street in one of Cairo’s most densely populated areas.

Fifteen fire engines were dispatched to the scene to douse the blaze while ambulances took the injured to nearby hospitals, officials said.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke to Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II by phone to express his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also expressed his condolences to the head of the Coptic Church.

“I am following the developments of the tragic accident closely,” wrote el-Sissi on Facebook. “I have instructed all government agencies and institutions concerned to take all necessary measures and to deal with this accident and its effects without delay.”

Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar said in a statement that two of the injured were discharged from a hospital while 12 others were still being treated.

The Home Office said it received a report of the fire at 9 a.m. local time and found the fire started in an air conditioning unit on the second floor of the building.

The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed an electrical short circuit for the fire, which produced huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was dispatched to the church.

Later Sunday, emergency services said they managed to put out the fire and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site.

Egypt’s Christians, who make up about 10% of the country’s more than 103 million people, have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority.

Sunday’s fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire safety regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, at least 20 people died and 24 others were injured in a fire at a textile factory near Cairo. Fire at Coptic church in Cairo kills 41, injures 14

Joshua Buckhalter

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