An electrical fire, prompting a stampede at a Coptic church in Giza, Egypt, killed at least 41 people, including 18 children between 3 to 16 years old, during Mass on Sunday.

The fire broke out at 9 a.m. at the multi-story Abu Sifin church, when an air conditioning unit on the second floor experienced an electrical failure, Egypt’s Interior Ministry said, adding that most of the deaths and injuries among the 5,000 worshipers at the church were caused by smoke in the classrooms. 

“People were gathering on the third and fourth floor, and we saw smoke coming from the second floor,” church attendee Yasir Munir told Reuters, stating that he and his daughter were on the ground floor at the time. “People rushed to go down the stairs and started falling on top of each other.”

“Then we heard a bang and sparks and fire coming out of the window,” he said. 

In addition to the fatalities, dozens of people were injured in the incident. Egypt’s prosecutor general, Hamada el-Sawy, said he has ordered an investigation into the fire.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi extended his condolences to Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in a telephone call on Sunday. He also tweeted his condolences.

“I am closely following the development of the tragic accident … and I have asked all concerned government agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and immediately deal with this accident and its effects and ensure all aspects of healthcare for the injured,” the president wrote. “I offer my sincere condolences to the families of the innocent victims who moved to the side of their Lord in one of the houses of worship.”

Egypt has experienced several multi-casualty fires in recent years. The Egyptian government has stated that it would compensate the families of those killed in the Abu Sifin blaze, with 100,000 Egyptian pounds (around $5,223), and those injured, with 20,000 Egyptian pounds (about $1,004). 

According to The New York Times, “For decades, Christians in Egypt have complained that government restrictions on the construction, renovation and repair of churches have been part of a larger pattern of discrimination that has relegated them to second-class citizenship and left many of their houses of worship in disrepair.”

While the Egyptian government has begun to renovate archaeological Christian sites to draw international tourists to the country, Christians are unable to freely construct new buildings or even repair old ones. 

“Permits have traditionally been issued by presidential decree,” the Times noted.

However, the building restrictions have not stopped Egyptian Christians from building new churches. The consequence, the Times writes, is that “thousands of churches, fearful of drawing attention to themselves, have built places of worship without official authorization, often ignoring fire-safety standards.”

The Abu Sifin church is one such building that was built without a permit and was licensed only some years later, said Egyptian local Seif Ibrahim, whose son participated in the rescue effort at the church. 

For Christians, Egypt ranks number 20 among countries that are difficult and dangerous to live in as a Christian, according to Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List. For the 10% Coptic minority in the predominantly Sunni Muslim country, the Abu Sifin tragedy follows other sorrows, “with persecution and discrimination spiking since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011,” CNN reported.

“While Egypt’s government speaks positively about the Christian community, the lack of serious law enforcement and the unwillingness of local authorities to protect Christians leave them vulnerable to all kinds of attacks,” Open Doors stated. “The dictatorial nature of the regime means Christians feel unable to speak out against these practices.”

Only a week ago, it was reported that a radical Islamist stabbed a Christian father and his son in the Omraniya district of Giza. The culprit, Ahmad Muhammad, reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) and “infidels” while attacking them. 

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