ISLAMIC STATE (IS) has claimed responsibility for two attacks on Christians in Helwan, a region of Egypt south of the capital, Cairo, last Friday.
In total, nine people were killed after gunmen attacked a Copt-owned shop and then tried to attack a church. In a third unconnected attack, on New Year’s Eve, two Christians were shot dead in Cairo outside a shop selling alcohol.
The details of the first attack are unclear; conflicting information has been released by the country’s Ministry of the Interior and Health Department. The Ministry said that one man attacked a household-appliances shop and killed two brothers there. The same man then attempted to burst into St Mina’s, a Coptic church, but was stopped by security forces at the security perimeter. Seven people, including a police officer, were killed before the attacker was subdued and arrested.
This account differs significantly from earlier statements and eyewitness reports, the BBC reported. Videos online suggest that there was more than one gunman at the church, and that, although one was killed at the scene, a second attacker was able to flee in a car.
In the New Year’s Eve shooting, a man on a motorcycle armed with a rifle rode up to two Coptic men who were celebrating, shot them both dead, and then rode away. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the murders.
PAWitness: bullet-holes are seen on a wall at the church in Cairo attacked last Friday
The Coptic minority in Egypt has suffered from regular terrorist atrocities in recent years, often at the hands of men later claimed to be the “soldiers” of IS.
In June, 29 Christians were killed in an ambush and dozens more were injured while they were travelling to a monastery. Masked gunmen stormed the pilgrims’ buses before shooting their victims at point-blank range (News, 26 May).
On Palm Sunday, 44 Copts were murdered in two bombings at two churches, including the oldest in Egypt, where the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, was presiding (News, 13 April).
In the wake of the latest attacks, the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, promised that his government would “cleanse the country of terrorism and extremism”.
Pope Francis has offered his condolences to the victims of the attacks in Helwan. After saying the Angelus in St Peter’s Square on Sunday, he said: “I express my closeness to the Coptic Orthodox brothers of Egypt, struck two days ago by two attacks on a church and a shop in the suburbs of Cairo. May the Lord welcome the souls of the dead, comfort the wounded, their families, and the whole community, and convert all violent hearts.”
The President-Bishop of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Dr Mouneer Anis, said that he was “deeply saddened” by the deaths in what he termed a “cowardly terrorist attack”. He praised the courage of the police officers who were guarding the church, and urged Christians everywhere to pray for the families who had lost loved ones in the shootings.
His Grace Bishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of London, said that he was “saddened” to find himself once again mourning the loss of innocent men, women, and children who “did no more than attend their local parish to pray as millions do around the world”.
“Even at this painful time,” he said, “the Christians of Egypt, who have mourned over 100 members in the past year as a result of targeted attacks on churches and individuals, continue to do what they have done for centuries: they are resilient, forgiving, hopeful, and praying for Egypt and its leadership, during this trying time of its contemporary history.
“I hope that the extraordinary reaction of this faithful community that I am honoured to call my own might transform the hearts of those who continue to seek its destruction.”