CAIRO — At least 41 people were killed and about a dozen others injured after a fire broke out in a Coptic Orthodox church in greater Cairo as worshipers gathered for Sunday prayers, according to the country’s Health Ministry.
The blaze at Abu Sefein Church — one of the largest in the municipality of Giza — left several children and the church’s bishop dead, according to witnesses and officials.
The fire is believed to have been caused by a faulty air-conditioning unit on the second floor of the building, which also housed classrooms, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said in a statement. The country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, said he had ordered an investigation into the fire.
Father Mikhael Guirguis, the deputy leader of the Northern Giza archdiocese, told a church-affiliated TV station that he saw the bodies of children after the blaze. Another priest at a nearby church who also spoke to the same TV station said children had been moved to the top floor of the building when the fire broke out, rather than being evacuated.
The majority of the deaths and injuries were the result of smoke inhalation and a stampede as people tried to flee the burning building, the Health Ministry said. The Interior Ministry later said that the blaze had been brought under control.
Video footage from the scene that was verified by The Times showed churchgoers screaming for help from windows as thick black smoke poured out from the building. In other footage, people could be seen trapped on the church’s roof as the fire spread around them.
Some residents of Imbaba, the densely packed neighborhood that is home to the church, criticized the response of the government and emergency services. One woman said in footage shared from the scene by Al Jazeera that emergency services did not arrive for two and a half hours. But others said that emergency response workers had arrived within 15 minutes and quickly put out the flames.
The new health minister, Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, on Sunday defended officials’ emergency response time, saying that crews had arrived at the site of the fire within minutes.
Footage from outside one of the hospitals where patients were being treated showed an angry crowd. The source of their ire was not immediately clear. Egypt’s prime minister, Mostafa Madbouly, along with other senior politicians, was visiting the injured in the hospital.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi spoke by phone on Sunday with the head of Egypt’s Coptic church, Pope Tawadros II, and offered his condolences, according to a statement from the president’s office.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” Mr. el-Sisi said in a statement on Twitter. “I directed all concerned state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures.”
The government announced that the families of the victims of the blaze would receive 100,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $5,223), and the injured would receive 20,000 pounds (about $1,004), according to a statement by Egypt’s cabinet.
Egypt has been repeatedly plagued in recent years by fires that spiral into mass casualty events, drawing criticism of the government’s emergency response and as well as its fire-safety standards and regulations.
In 2002, at least 370 people were killed when a fire broke out on an overnight train speeding through the expanse of upper Egypt as flames spread from car to car. In 2005, at least 31 people died in a blaze at a state-owned theater in the city of Beni Suef after a candle fell during a production of “Hamlet.”
In 2008, a fire gutted the Upper House of Egypt’s Parliament, injuring at least 10 people. A blaze at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people in March 2021. And two separate hospital fires — in 2020 and 2021 — killed a total of nine coronavirus patients in the cities of Alexandria and Giza.
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 100 million population, which is mostly Sunni Muslim. The minority group is frequently the target of widespread discrimination and violent attacks, including by the Islamic State’s branch in Egypt’s Sinai Province.
For decades, Christians in Egypt have complained that government restrictions on the construction, renovation and repair of churches were part of a larger pattern of discrimination that relegated them to second-class citizenship and left many of their houses of worship in disrepair.
Legislation dating to 1934 prohibits churches from being built near schools and government buildings, and building permits have traditionally only been issued by presidential decree. The government has historically viewed such church projects as a potential security issue that must be tightly managed, in part because of the country’s history of sectarian clashes, particularly in poor and rural areas, according to a 2018 report by the Project for Middle East Democracy, a U.S.-based research institute.
Thousands of churches have been built without official authorization as a result, often in flagrant violation of basic fire-safety standards.
Under pressure from Egypt’s Christian minority, Mr. el-Sisi introduced a law in 2016 that aimed to overhaul those regulations. Though the law was hailed at the time as a crucial first step in ending decades of discrimination, its implementation has since been marred by dysfunction and slow bureaucracy.
The blaze drew condolences from foreign governments on Sunday. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry expressed its “deep sadness and sorrow.”
The U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Egypt, Nicole Shampaine, said a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Church in Giza and across Egypt.” Britain’s ambassador to Egypt, Gareth Bayley, also offered his condolences.
Later on Sunday, relatives held a funeral Mass for the victims at a church in the Warraq neighborhood. The bodies were taken from hospitals to a church there for the ceremony.
Nada Rashwan reported from Cairo, Euan Ward from London and Liam Stack from New York.