CAIRO – After an electrical fire swept through a small Coptic Orthodox church in downtown Cairo on Sunday, killing 41 worshipers, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered the military to immediately renovate the building.
Under the supervision of soldiers, dozens of workers worked through the night, hauling out charred beams and broken pipes and repainting the walls and the Iron Cross on the narrow four-storey building sandwiched between shops and apartments. At least on Monday evening, the exterior of the Abu Sefein Church looked newly built.
The government also offered condolences.
But that swift action didn’t stop the patriarch of Egypt’s 10 million Coptic Orthodox Christians from expressing on Tuesday her frustration that the largest Christian community in the Middle East has been pressured by decades of government regulations that have reduced the number and size. of churches in this predominantly Muslim country.
“The restrictions have led to the construction of small churches that do not meet the needs of Christians,” Pope Tawadros II said on Tuesday in an unusual statement of implicit criticism. He called on authorities to either move the 12,000-square-meter Abu Sefein Church to a larger space or have it expanded to accommodate the large numbers of Christians in the area.
His statement was softened by praise for Mr el-Sisi’s response and civil defense, noting that the restrictions started under previous governments. But in a country where criticism of the government by Christian officials is extremely rare, it still spoke volumes.
Among the 41 dead were 18 children and the bishop who led the Divine Liturgy when the fire broke out at the church in Imbaba’s working-class district. Most died from smoke inhalation or were trampled as they tried to make their way from the fourth floor, where the service was held, to the ground floor exit, said a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, Reverend Moussa Ibrahim. , Tuesday.
Some of those who survived escaped through the windows or the roof.
Father Ibrahim said about 100 people had gathered for Sunday service when the fire started, meaning nearly half of those in attendance had died. Church officials had originally said up to 500 were present at the time of the fire.
The Interior Ministry is still investigating the cause of the fire. But church officials said it started shortly after a generator there started operating during a power outage. The generator exploded when power came back on during Sunday shift.
“The fire affected the entire electrical grid and the smoke was everywhere,” said Father Ibrahim, the spokesman for the Coptic Church, adding that the entire electrical system was short-circuited at the same time.
The semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper said the government’s renovation after the fire included some upgrades to the electrical system with the installation of higher-capacity cables.
Father Ibrahim denied testimony that the main entrance to the church was locked at the time of the fire, preventing believers from escaping.
Coptic Christians trace their origins to the ancient Egyptians, and the country’s churches are a mix of cathedrals, the result of grandiose gestures of government solidarity, and small, makeshift churches in poorer areas.
According to government and local officials, electrical fires broke out on Monday and Tuesday in two other Coptic churches in Egypt, one in Cairo and the other in Minya province, a few hours to the south. There were no reports of casualties. The church in Minya, which a church official said was empty at the time, was found to be badly damaged in videos.
But the three fires in as many days reflect the general state of disrepair in buildings across Egypt, where there is often substandard construction and little enforcement of safety standards.
Cairo, the Egyptian capital, is one of the most populous cities in the world, and the Imbaba district is made up of narrow streets lined with shops and apartment buildings that face a maze of street vendors.
The Abu Sefein Church had functioned unofficially until after 2016, when its status as a church was legalized, Father Ibrahim said. That same year, Mr. el-Sisi passed a law that lifted many restrictions on building and renovating churches, but left much of that power to the whims of local government officials, who can block permits for churches.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Abu Sefein was licensed in 2019, but because it was not purpose-built and limited in size, the church expanded upwards.
The US State Department’s 2021 report on religious freedom in Egypt noted that the size of new churches to be allowed depends on a government-imposed determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. It said the construction of churches is subject to more government oversight than the construction of new mosques.
Egypt has historically been one of the main centers of Sunni Islam in the region. At a Monday vigil in a church hall for three children who had died in the fire, the call to prayer from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque drowned out the priest’s sermon.
Tension between Christians and Muslim communities in Egypt is largely concentrated in rural villages, many in Minya Province, which has the highest percentage of Christians in the country. In some villages, Christians who have not allowed local governors to build churches have left nothing but the streets to hold religious services for funerals and weddings, according to Christians in Minya.
maj. Gene. Mohamed Nabil Omar, a former civil defense director, said all places of worship and other buildings should have emergency exits, as well as security inspections every one to three years.
Neither the government nor church officials would comment on the findings of the investigation so far, or on whether or when the building’s wiring was last inspected.
“If the government decides today to close all buildings deemed unsafe according to official reports, three quarters of Egypt will be closed,” said General Omar.
Nada Rashwan contributed from Cairo.