Coptic Christian family loses 6 members in Egypt church fire

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Mariam Habeib, center, who lost six loved ones in a fire at the Abu Sefein Coptic Christian Orthodox Church that killed 41 people during a Sunday service, receives condolences outside her home in Imbaba neighborhood, the one of Egypt’s most densely populated, in Giza, Egypt, August 16, 2022. For Habeib, the grief is endless as she lost her older sister, two nieces and a niece’s three young children. The tragedy has devastated many families, hitting a Christian community that is one of the oldest in the world. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

PA

For Mariam Habeib, the grief seems endless: She lost her older sister, two nieces and a niece’s three young children in a massive fire that engulfed a church in the Egyptian capital during a recent service and killed 41 people.

The Coptic Christian community is one of the oldest in the world and is no stranger to sadness. A minority in Egypt, Coptic Orthodox Christians have been victims of deadly attacks by Islamic extremists, restrictions on church building and outbursts of sectarian-motivated violence in recent decades. The most recent tragedy has sparked an outpouring of sympathy across the country.

“Our consolation is that they went to heaven together because they loved being together in life,” Habeib said of his loved ones, tears streaming down his face.

Nineteen of those killed in the August 14 fire were children. The fire broke out at the Coptic Christian Orthodox Martyr Abu Sefein Church in the Imbaba district, one of the most densely populated areas in Egypt. Sixteen people were also injured, including four police officers and residents involved in the rescue effort. Health authorities said the casualties were the result of smoke inhalation and a stampede as people tried to escape.

Prosecutors say the fire was started by a short circuit in the building’s generator, a backup power source, which the church used during regular blackouts. The generator, they said, caught fire when power returned after a power outage that morning.

Habeib lives in Shubra, another densely populated working-class neighborhood in Cairo. On the morning of the fire, she said she was on her way to work when she received a phone call from her brother. He told her that he had heard that there had been a fire in Abu Sefein and that their older sister, Magda Habeib, and her daughters were there. She soon learned that the victims were being taken to a nearby hospital.

The moment she arrived, Mariam Habeib found herself facing what she had dreaded on the half-hour drive to the hospital.

Her nephew, Mina Atif, had recognized the bodies of her mother, Magda, two sisters, Irine and Mirna, and Irine’s 5-year-old twin daughters, Barcina and Mariam. They roamed the halls looking for the still missing 3-year-old boy. Then they saw hospital workers carrying a small body wrapped in a white sheet. It turned out to be the body of Irine’s toddler, Ibram.

“All of them lay motionless before our eyes,” she said. “The children had been very much alive, as if they knew their end would be near.”

Habeib and his nephew collapsed in disbelief, two of dozens of grief-stricken weeping relatives in the hospital morgue.

Although officials have ruled out arson, the fire – one of the deadliest in Egypt for many years – has raised a flood of questions about the emergency response system, fire safety codes and restrictions on building places of worship for one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East.

Martyr Abu Sefein Church stood in a 120 square meter (1,290 square foot) space in a converted four-story apartment building that resembles other residential buildings in the crowded neighborhood built largely without planning or permits . It was only recognizable as a church by a sign above its front door and an iron cross on its roof.

Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II said the church, like many others, is too small for the number of worshipers it serves. He blamed government restrictions on building new churches and urged authorities in Muslim-majority Egypt to move existing small churches to new locations or allow them to expand to accommodate growing numbers.

Limits on building new churches have led many congregations to convert residential buildings into places of worship. In 2016, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi enacted the country’s first law setting out rules for building a church. Critics argued that the law did nothing to relax previous restrictions.

Just a day before the fire, on Saturday, the whole family had gathered for their weekly family meeting, a short walk from the church.

“It was a very nice day, like they were saying goodbye,” said Michael Ayad, who is married to Nermin, one of Magda’s two surviving children. Also present was the fiancé of Magda’s youngest daughter, Mirna, 22, a university student. The two were to marry this year.

A few days later, Mina, the son of Magda, received hundreds of mourners in the same house where his family had been happy a few days before. Dozens of neighbors and relatives came to remember the dead, many speaking through tears.

A 40-year-old neighbor who identified herself as Um Azza, recalled how Magda Habeib was among the first to try to settle disputes between neighbors regardless of their religion, even marital problems.

“Everyone on the street is indebted to him for his generosity,” she said, holding back tears.

Magda’s husband had died ten years ago, but the 61-year-old continued to live in the same apartment the family had lived in for 30 years. Her two youngest children, Mina and Mirna, lived with her. His two married daughters, Nermin and Irine, lived in the same neighborhood. Irine’s husband had died of a heart attack last year, leaving her alone with three young children. Irine and her children stayed the night of Saturday, to go to church with her mother the next morning.

“Aunt Magda used to say, Irine and the children are my goal for the rest of my life,” Ayad recalled, using the French equivalent of aunt. “They went to Abu Sefein to die together.”

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