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Tragedy in Egypt: 41 killed in Coptic church fire

The fire was caused by an electrical fault, according to government officials
AFP/AMIR MAKAR  -   Cristianos asisten a la procesión de los epitafios del Viernes Santo frente a la Iglesia Ortodoxa Griega de San Jorge, en el barrio del Viejo Cairo de la capital egipcia, el 26 de abril de 2019

AFP/AMIR MAKAR  -   Good Friday in front of St George's Greek Orthodox Church in the Old Cairo neighbourhood of the Egyptian capital

A fire in a Cairo church during a mass, caused by an electrical fault, has caused at least 41 deaths and a dozen injured on Sunday, in a tragedy that has shaken the Egyptian Coptic community.

According to the Coptic Church, which cites sources from the Arab country's Ministry of Health, the death toll is now at 41, while 14 people were injured during the fire during mass in the church of El Martyr Abu Sefein (Saint Mercury), located in the area of Al Munira, in the Imbaba neighbourhood, southwest of Cairo.

In the absence of official confirmation, Egyptian media report that many of the dead include children, a possibility that is reinforced by the traditional role of Coptic churches as schools, social centres and community gathering places for this religious minority. Among the dead, a security source told Efe, is the priest of the Abu Sefein church, Abdel Masih, whose body was taken to Aguza Hospital.

Electrical fault, cause of the fire

At around 8.57am (6.57 GMT) the first warning of the fire was given, according to health ministry spokesman Hossam Abdel Ghaffar, who said ambulances arrived only two minutes later at the church.

The Interior Ministry, through the official Egyptian news agency MENA, said that, according to initial investigations, the fire originated in the air conditioning unit on the first floor of the church building, which includes several classrooms, due to an electrical fault, which caused the emission of a thick amount of smoke, the main cause of death of the people. He also indicated that two officers and three civil defence personnel were injured.

The source added that they received notice of the fire at around 9 a.m. (7 a.m. GMT) and civil defence forces moved in and brought the fire under control, in addition to evacuating the dead and injured to Imbaba General and Aguza hospitals, the closest hospitals to the scene of the fire. Egyptian television stations showed the church, which is located in a popular neighbourhood of the Egyptian capital and has been completely burnt inside.

On the other hand, the Egyptian Minister of Solidarity, Neven al Kabaj, visited the injured in the church incident and decided to give 50,000 Egyptian pounds (2,545 euros) to the family of each of the dead, in the case of the deceased being the father or head of the family, 25,000 pounds (1,272 euros) for each of the dead and 5,000 pounds (254 euros) for each of the injured, the ministry announced on its official Facebook account.

The Egyptian prosecutor's office ordered an investigation into the fire and formed "an extensive investigation team to investigate the church fire incident in Imbaba, which immediately moved to inspect it and initiate investigative proceedings", it said in a terse statement on its official Facebook page, adding that it would announce its findings "whenever possible".

Copts, a hard-hit community

The Copts are the largest and most prominent Christian community in Egypt, where they represent about 10 percent & of the population of more than 100 million. But it is also one of the hardest hit, as the community has been the victim of brutal attacks both in its temples and elsewhere in the Arab country, especially in 2016 and 2017.

The fire has prompted a wave of condolence messages, including from Coptic Pope Tawadros and Egypt's president, Abdelfatah al Sisi. "I am closely following the tragic incident in the church (...) and I have ordered all relevant state apparatuses and institutions to take all necessary measures, and to immediately deal with this incident and its effects, and provide all medical care to the injured," the president said on his official Facebook account.