‘The dead were everywhere’ – 23 Coptic Christians killed in bomb attack on chapel complex
Telegraph. Magdy Samaan, Cairo
11 December 2016 • 12:10pm
Men, women and children filed in to Cairo’s Coptic Christian chapel on Sunday morning, taking a moment of respite from the bustle of the Egyptian capital’s busy streets.
Situated in a complex at St Mark’s Cathedral, the congregation was worshipping near the seat of the Coptic pope and the heart of their religion.
Minutes later, a blast ripped through the congregation, on the side of the church usually used by women, killing 23 and wounding scores of others in an attack that was chilling even by the bloody standards of Egypt’s recent history.
Al-Bortosia chapel became the scene of a nightmare: windows smashed, the floor littered with body parts and pews smeared with blood.
It was unclear how the bomb came to be inside the church, with some eyewitnesses saying it was thrown through a window, while others claimed it was planted next to the altar.
Egyptian security forces examine the scene inside St. Mark Cathedral in central Cairo, following a bombing, Sunday, Dec. 11,
What was certain by lunchtime was that Egypt’s Coptic Christians had suffered their deadliest attack in recent memory, with Islamic extremists among the chief suspects.
“Dead bodies were scattered everywhere, I saw people with their heads cut off,” Qelleny Farag, a member of the congregation, told the Telegraph as he searched for his wife.
Mr Farag, 80, managed to escape the chapel unharmed but was unable to find his wife, whose fate remains unknown .
As the bomb exploded on the left-hand side of the church, where female worshipers sit according to tradition, it is feared the majority of the dead are women and children.
Personal effects were left scattered among the shattered glass on the floor, including a broken pair of ladies’ spectacles, a child’s boot and a pink ribbon.
“As soon as the priest called us to prepare for prayer, the explosion happened,” said Emad Shoukry, who was also inside the church when the bomb went off.
A worker cleans the scene inside St. Mark Cathedral in central Cairo, following a bombing,
“The explosion shook the place… the dust covered the hall and I was looking for the door, although I couldn’t see anything.
“I managed to leave in the middle of screams and there were a lot of people thrown on the ground.”
One witness said he had noticed a woman acting strangely before the service began, and claimed that she planted the bomb by the altar.
Others furiously accused Egypt’s security services of incompetence as they failed to spot the attacker.
“There were no security, the security guards were having breakfast,” Samia Naem said. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reacted with horror to the “terrible attack.”
“Let us pray in lament, protest and in hope for them, martyrs for Christ,” he wrote on the social network Twitter.
Magdy Zidan, a worker in a juice shop near the cathedral complex, said he entered the church about 15 minutes after the blast.
“I went inside the church after things calmed down and I helped in evacuating 10-12 bodies to the nearby churches,” he said.
“I found everything destroyed. There were a lot of casualties. Most of the people inside the church were killed or injured.”
“The police came late, about 45 after the bombing. Before the ambulance came, after about 30 minutes, we had evacuated bodies and injured people to nearby hospitals by private cars.”
Within a few hours, a small group of protesters had gathered outside the partially destroyed chapel, where they sobbed and angrily accused Egypt’s interior ministry of security failures.
By lunchtime, their numbers has swelled to the hundreds, and soldiers armed with teargas were sent to control the crowds.
“As long as Egyptian blood is cheap, down with any president,” the protesters chanted, referring to Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Mr al-Sisi, who is fighting an Islamist insurgency in the north of Egypt, declared three days of national mourning and strongly condemned the attack as an act of terrorism.
A picture shows the damage at the scene of the bomb explosion.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, but it was celebrated on social media by supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
“God bless the person who did this blessed act,” wrote one jihadist on the online messaging network Telegram, while another said: “God is great, God is great, God is great.”
The attack comes after six officers were killed in a bombing in Cairo last Friday, which was claimed by a mysterious group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is understood the extremist group was formed after the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in 2013. Christians in Egypt have previously been targeted by Islamic extremists, such as in 2011 when a New Year’s Day bombing in Alexandria left 21 dead.
“This is a serious development,” Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said.
“This is the first time a bomb was smuggled inside a church [in Egypt] and targeted directly the worshipers.
The Al-Bortosia bombing was condemned by senior leaders of Egypt’s Christian and Muslim communities.
“The vile terrorist explosion…was a great crime against all Egyptians,” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of Egypt’s top Sunni Muslim authority, Al-Azhar.