“A gunman on a motorcycle opened fire Friday outside a church in a working-class Cairo suburb and a nearby store, sparking a shootout that killed at least nine people, including eight Coptic Christians in the latest attack targeting the country’s embattled Christian minority, the health ministry said.
The attack comes just one week before the Coptic Christian community celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7 — a date based on the ancient Egyptian calendar.
The Interior Ministry identified the assailant as Ibrahim Ismail Mostafa, who, the agency said, was involved in several previous militant attacks, according to the Associated Press. The Interior Ministry said he was wounded and arrested but made no mention of his death, which was reported by the Health Ministry.
The assailant had earlier opened fire at the nearby store owned by a Christian, the Interior Ministry said.
Egypt’s Christian minority has been targeted by Islamic militants in a series of attacks since December 2016 that left more than 100 dead and scores wounded.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry had already allocated 230,000 security personnel to secure the country’s 2,626 churches before Christmas but the three armed guards at the St. Mina Church had insufficient ammunition to confront assailants, according to an eyewitness.
“It’s worrisome that the officers did not have enough bullets to engage against this threat,” said Father Boutros Anis, who added that it was clear the attackers knew the time of church services and calibrated the attack to hit as many worshippers as possible.
Emad George, a religious school teacher, said he saw a blast of gunfire penetrate the door of the church in the Helwan suburb at around 10:45 a.m. local time.
“When I heard the shooting, I sent the children inside the sanctuary,” said George. “Then I looked out the window and saw an elderly man struck down. … His head was completely obliterated by multiple bullets.”
Father Bolos Younan said four of his congregants were taken away by ambulance for medical care.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi quickly condemned the attack, the latest since a deadly assault on a Sufi Mosque in the North Sinai — believed to have been carried out by the Islamic State — left over 300 dead. ISIS considers the mystical Sufi trend in Islam to be heretical and Christians infidels.
The area between the Nile Valley and the Palestinian enclave of Gaza has witnessed a four-year battle between ISIS fighters and Egyptian security services.
“These desperate terrorist attempts will not undermine the resolve and the entrenched national unity of the Egyptian people,” said Bassam Rady, spokesman for el-Sisi. “They only increase our determination to continue on the path to eliminate terrorism and extremism.
El-Sisi, who receives strong support by the Coptic Christian community, is expected to attend a dedication next week of the largest church in the Middle East that sits on a 15-acre site in the new administrative capital 28 miles east of Cairo.
The president’s vision of co-existence between Christians and Muslim is not embraced by Egypt’s militant Islamists whose leaders have fled the country or been imprisoned since el-Sisi came to power in 2013. Last year, an Islamic State’s local affiliate claimed an attack on a Cairo church that left 25 dead and two Palm Sunday bombings killed over 40 people.
A mob last Friday stormed a property that had been used as a place of worship by Christians in the village of Atfieh, about 50 miles south of Cairo.
Muslim villagers heard a rumor that church bells were to be installed atop the house where their Christian neighbors assembled for prayer.
“There is a connection between the attack in Atfieh and today’s bloody assault,” said Ishaak Ibrahim, chief religious minorities researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group. “We witnessed increasing attacks on Coptic Christians in 2017 and this is the just the latest in the chain.””