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In Cairo, where millions of Egyptians live in informal settlements, accidental fires are not uncommon. An investigation has been opened.

A fire started on Sunday in the middle of a mass in a church in a popular district of Cairo killed 41 people, mourning the largest Christian community in the Middle East with 10 to 15 of the 103 million Egyptians.

“The air conditioner in a classroom on the second floor of the building where the church is located broke down and released a large amount of smoke, which was the main cause of injuries and deaths,” says the ministry of Interior.

The Abu Sifine church – named after the holy Mercury of Caesarea, revered by the Copts – is indeed stuck in a narrow alley of the popular district of Imbaba.

One of the fire engines which was active there on Sunday cluttered almost the entire width of the street in this densely populated sector of the left bank of the Nile.

The church is on the ground floor of a building, separated by just a few meters by a vis-à-vis, surmounted by a cross and also housing a center for social services, noted a photographer from the AFP on the spot.

“Looking for the Children”

For Reda Ahmed, a resident of the neighborhood and neighbor of the church, “the neighbors have organized themselves to pick up the children”.

But, he told AFP, “those who came back could no longer go back because the fire was too big”. The fire was later brought under control, authorities said.

A little further on, Father Farid Fahmy, a religious officiating at the neighboring church of Mar Yemina, affirms that “the fire started because of a generator which started up after a power cut and suffered overload”.

The prosecution announced that it had opened an investigation and sent a team to the scene, while the Ministry of Health indicated that it had dispatched several dozen ambulances.

Because very quickly, President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi announced that he had “mobilized all state services so that all measures are taken”.

Mr. Sissi also announced that he had “presented his condolences by telephone” to Coptic Pope Tawadros II, head of the Christian community in Egypt since 2012.

Since then, the Coptic Orthodox Church has displayed itself more on the political scene, under the leadership of Tawadros II, a proclaimed supporter of Mr. Sisi, the first president of Egypt to attend the Coptic Christmas mass each year while his predecessors sent representatives.

In the sprawling megalopolis of Cairo, where millions of Egyptians live in informal settlements, accidental fires are not uncommon. More generally, Egypt, endowed with dilapidated and poorly maintained infrastructure, regularly experiences deadly fires in its various provinces.

Another Church Monday

Already on Monday, a church had caught fire in Heliopolis, a wealthy district in the east of Cairo, without causing any deaths or injuries.

In March 2021, at least 20 people died in a fire at a textile factory in the eastern suburbs of Cairo. In 2020, two fires in hospitals claimed the lives of fourteen patients with Covid-19.

Although numerous, the Copts consider themselves kept out of many positions in the public service and deplore very restrictive legislation for the construction of churches and much more liberal for mosques.

The subject is sensitive and Coptic human rights activist Patrick Zaki recently spent 22 months in detention for “spreading false information” over an article exposing violations of Christian rights in Egypt.

Copts have suffered reprisals from Islamists, notably after Mr Sisi’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, with churches, schools and homes set on fire.

Mr. Sissi recently appointed for the first time in history a Coptic judge to head the Constitutional Court.

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