CAIRO: Egypt’s Christians were stunned Monday by a drive-by shooting in which masked gunmen sprayed a wedding party outside a Cairo church with automatic weapons, killing four, in an attack that raised fears of a nascent insurgency by extremists after the ouster of the president and a crackdown on Islamists.
Several thousand Christians gathered for the funeral of the four members of a single family, including two young girls, gunned down the previous evening, as the government and religious leaders condemned the attack.
Egypt has seen an increase in attacks by radicals since the military removed Islamist President Mohammad Morsi and launched a heavy crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. The targets have mainly been security forces and Christians, whom Islamists blame because of their strong support of Morsi’s ouster. In Sinai, suspected jihadist fighters have stepped up attacks on soldiers and police. In rural provinces of the south, there has been a wave of mob attacks led by extremists against churches, which have been burned and looted.
But the bloodshed in Cairo’s Warraq district was the first such violence in the capital, a shooting against Christians.
“With our blood and souls, we will redeem the cross,” a crowd of mourners chanted as the bodies were brought for the funeral at the Virgin Mary Church, where the attack took place.
One male relative fell onto one of the coffins, weeping. In the church, they sang hymns, “Help us, Jesus. Forgive us. Bless us. Our eyes are filled with tears.”
Fahmy Azer Abboud, 75, sat stunned in the church, staring in shock at the floor. Sunday evening, his family had been waiting outside the church for the wedding of one his granddaughters to begin when gunmen on motorcycles drove by and opened fire for five minutes, then drove away.
Two of his other granddaughters, an 8- and a 13-year-old, were killed, as well as his son and sister-in-law. Seven of his relatives were among the 17 wounded in the attack. Several Muslims were also wounded, church leaders said.
“It’s God’s will. They are always beating us down. Every other day now, they do this,” Abboud said. He added that ambulances did not arrive for an hour and half while police arrived even later.
The military-backed interim prime minister, Hazem al-Beblawi, pledged the attack would “not succeed in sowing divisions between the nation’s Muslims and Christians.”
The top official at Al-Azhar, the world’s primary seat of Sunni Islamic learning, called the shooting “a criminal act that runs contrary to religion and morals.”In a brief statement, an umbrella group of Islamist parties, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which have led a campaign of protests against the July 3 ouster, also condemned the attack.
“Places of worship are sacred,” the National Alliance for Supporting Legitimacy and Rejecting the Coup said in its statement. Morsi’s allies while in office included radical groups with violent pasts and hard-line religious figures who often engaged in anti-Christian rhetoric.
Christians have been increasingly targeted in a militant backlash after Morsi’s ouster. Islamists have blamed Christians for playing a significant role in the mass street protests by millions that led to Morsi’s removal. The head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, publicly supported Morsi’s ouster.
Attacks in August destroyed about 40 Coptic churches, mostly in areas south of Cairo where large Coptic communities and powerful Islamist militants make for a combustible mix. Those attacks, blamed by Christians and police on Morsi supporters, came amid a wave of retaliation after security forces crushed two Islamist protest camps demanding Morsi’s reinstatement in Cairo in a crackdown that killed hundreds of Morsi supporters. Clashes between Morsi’s supporters and security forces occur almost daily in Cairo.
There has been increasing criticism from Copts that the new military-backed authorities are not doing enough to protect Christians despite the continuing attacks.
At the Virgin Mary Church, another relative of the slain Christians appealed to the head of the military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who is credited with Morsi’s removal, to take action.
“I want to tell Sisi that I love him but he should stop forgetting us. We have reached the limit,” Maurice Helmy said.
A Coptic youth group, known as The Association of Maspero Youth, called for the dismissal of Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim, who heads the police.
“If the Egyptian government does not care about the security and rights of Christians, then we must ask why are we paying taxes and why we are not arming ourselves,” the group said.
The Maspero Youth Association was formed soon after over 20 Christians were killed by army troops cracking down on their protest in 2011 outside Cairo’s landmark Nile-side state television building, known as Maspero.
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher at a Cairo-based rights group who tracks anti-Christians, said Sunday’s attack showed “a change and possible expansion of the attacks targeting Christians in Egypt and it could leave more victims.”
He blamed security forces for failing to protect churches. “Churches were torched, Christians kidnapped and now gunned down and there is no security guarding the churches. I believe there is collaboration,” Ibrahim said of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.