Richard Spencer, Cairo – 22/10/13
Four members of the same family including girl cousins aged eight and 12 were killed and 19 others injured when a Coptic Christian wedding in the Egyptian capital Cairo was raked by gunfire.
The attackers were wearing masks as they sped on a motorbike past the Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in the northern working class suburb of al-Waraaq on Sunday night. Three wedding parties had gathered, with crowds and relatives of two of them still waiting on the street.
Onlookers said the road had been blocked deliberately 50 yards away outside a nearby mosque allowing the attackers a clear run on a street normally packed with traffic. They let off a single but sustained volley of gunfire, killing two of their victims immediately.
A third, Mariam Ashraf Seha, 8, died in hospital later that night, and the fourth, Mariam Nabeel, 12, on Monday morning.
Mariam Seha’s mother, Malkyan, was critically injured with a bullet wound to her head, her father, Ashraf Masiha, said. “I heard the gunfire and found my wife and daughter on the ground mired in blood,” he told a local reporter. “I used to take her to school every day. Her smile will never leave me, throughout my life.”
Funerals for all four were held on Monday afternoon at the church in front of a crowd of hundreds of Coptic mourners chanting “With our blood we will protect the cross”. The green plastic chair where one of the bride’s relatives, Camelia Helmy, 56, had been sitting when she was hit stood by the door, showing a clear bullet hole and streaked with blood.
“I was just getting ready to come to the church when my nephew called me to say they were shooting,” Mrs Helmy’s daughter, Magda Girgis, said. “He said his grandmother, my mother, had been killed.” Another of Mrs Helmy’s nephews, Sameer Fahmy, 40, was the fourth victim.
The clear targeting of a wedding caused outrage across the country, as did the reaction of the interior ministry, which said that the motive could not have been sectarian as three Muslims were among the 19 bystanders also injured.
Islamist mobs have stormed and burned churches in a number of areas of Egypt in retaliation for the backing by the Coptic Orthodox church of the removal by the army of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, in July, even though it was also supported by the leading Sunni Muslim authority, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University.
The attacks intensified after the storming of pro-Morsi protests by the army, with hundreds of deaths, in late July and August.
There have also been a number of terrorist attacks on police and the army, as well as a car bomb set off by the convoy of the interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, though he was unharmed. This was the most blatant attack on a Christian target in the capital, however.
“Everyone knows that on Sundays there will be weddings,” said Father Elijah Labib, who was about to conduct the service for Ramsy Sameer and Katreen Seha which the victims were due to attend. He said he had been preparing for the service when he heard the sound of shots.
“They said it was fireworks but I knew it was a different sound,” he said. “I came out into the church hall and found it was a sea of blood.”
Fady Magdy, 18, who had been standing outside waiting for the bride and groom, said: “I heard the shooting and was so scared. There was a string of motorbikes which went past, but I can’t tell if they were acting together.
“But the road had been blocked by the mosque and they were able to come through.”
The attack was condemned by the Grand Sheikh, Ahmed al-Tayeb, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. But opponents of the Brotherhood, including many of those Christians at the funeral, say that its rhetoric levelled against Christians was at least partly responsible.
Fr Bishoy Lutfy, the church’s priest, said there had been protests nearby by the Muslim Brotherhood. “We who have lived here with the Muslim Brotherhood for a long time know them well,” he said. “We know they lie all the time.”
However, Islamists have blamed the army, and in particular its violent repression of the Brotherhood and its protests for the rise in violence in the country.