Funerals have been held at two Cairo churches for the 41 victims of a massive fire at a Coptic Christian church, forcing worshipers to jump from windows.
A fire broke out on Sunday at Abu Siffin Church in Imbababa, a densely populated working-class district west of the Nile River that is part of Giza Governorate in Greater Cairo.
Hundreds of people gathered to pay their respects in and around two Giza churches on Sunday evening where clergy prayed for the victims.
Pallbearers pushed through crowds of weeping mourners who reached for coffins, including the church’s priest, Father Abdel-Messih Bekhit.
The Egyptian Coptic Church and the Ministry of Health reported that 41 people died and 14 were injured in the fire before it was brought under control by emergency services.
Witnesses to the Sunday morning fire described people rushing into Puja’s high-rise building to rescue those trapped, but rescuers were soon overwhelmed by the heat and deadly smoke.
Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, making up at least 10 million of Egypt’s Muslim majority population of 103 million.
“Everyone was taking the children out of the building,” Ahmad Reda Bayoumi, who lives next door to the church, told the AFP news agency. “But the fire was getting bigger and you could only go in once or you’d suffocate.”
Another witness, Syed Tawfiq, told AFP that “some threw themselves out of the windows to escape the fire”. He pointed to a car with a dent “who is now lying in hospital with a broken arm and back”.
Mina Masri, a resident of the area, said emergency services were slow to respond. Ambulances “took more than an hour to arrive” and fire trucks “almost an hour, even though their station is five minutes away”.
“If the ambulances had come on time, they could have saved the people,” Masri told AFP.
A statement from the public prosecutor’s office indicated that death was due to asphyxiation, as there were “no visible injuries”.
The interior ministry said “forensic evidence showed that the fire started in an air-conditioning unit on the second floor of the church building” which also houses social services.
Father Farid Fahmi of a nearby church told AFP that the fire was caused by a short circuit.
“The power was out and they were using a generator,” he said. “When the power came back on, it was overloaded.”
On Sunday morning, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on his Facebook page that he had “mobilized all state services” in response. He later said he had “expressed his condolences by phone” to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
He directed the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to “undertake reconstruction and renovation” of the church, the president said in a statement.
Christian communities often complain that rebuilding churches after devastating fires is marked by long delays and bureaucratic hurdles.
The governor of Giza ordered “an urgent aid of 50,000 pounds [about $2,600] to the families of the deceased and 10,000 lbs [$500] For the injured.”
The grand imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading Muslim body, expressed condolences over the “tragic accident” and confirmed the “readiness of Al-Azhar hospitals to receive the injured”.
A statement from the office of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed its “deepest condolences” to the families of the victims.
Accidental fires are not uncommon in Cairo’s sprawling megalopolis, where millions of people live in informal settlements amid dilapidated and poorly maintained infrastructure.
Bayoumi said the church’s location on a “very narrow street” was hampering firefighting operations.
The Coptic minority has endured attacks and complained of discrimination in the Arab world’s most populous North African country.
Copts have been targeted in deadly attacks, particularly after el-Sisi overthrew the government of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, burning churches, schools and homes.
Copts also complain that they have been excluded from key state positions and have protested restrictive laws for the construction and renovation of churches.
El-Sisi, the first Egyptian president to attend the Coptic Christmas Mass every year, in February appointed the first Coptic judge to head the country’s highest constitutional court.