Egypt’s deadly church fire sparks global outpouring of sorrow and sympathy

The Coptic Orthodox Church said that the fire broke out during the divine liturgy at the building in the north of Giza. (AFP)
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Updated 16 August 2022

Egypt’s deadly church fire sparks global outpouring of sorrow and sympathy

  • Blaze in Abu Sifin church in Giza governorate during Sunday mass claimed 41 lives
  • Condolences have come not just from Egypt but across the Arab and Muslim world

CAIRO: On Sunday, thick smoke and the sound of screams engulfed the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo as fire broke out at the Abu Sifin church in the low income district west of the Nile River.

Many of the 5,000 worshippers who had gathered for a peaceful mass at the Coptic church were forced to throw themselves from windows on to the street below.

By the time emergency services were able to respond and extinguish the blaze, 41 people, including 15 children, had died and 14 were left injured.

Later that day, hundreds gathered to pay their respects in and around two churches in the Giza governorate of greater Cairo, where clergymen prayed for the victims.




Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. (AFP)

Pallbearers pushed through crowds of weeping mourners who reached out to touch the coffins, including that of a priest at the church, Father Abdel-Messih Bekhit.

In an earlier statement, the Coptic Orthodox Church said that the fire broke out during the divine liturgy at the building in the north of Giza, and that several worshippers were transferred to the Imbaba and Agouza hospitals.

The following morning, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said that he had “mobilized all state services” in response and, later, that he had “presented his condolences by phone” to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The Egyptian leader also directed the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to “take over the reconstruction and renovation” of the church, the presidency said in a statement.

Witnesses to the fire described people rushing into the multi-story church to save those trapped, but the rescuers were soon overwhelmed by heat and deadly smoke.

“Everyone was carrying kids out of the building,” said Ahmed Reda Baioumy, who lives next to the church. “But the fire was getting bigger and you could only go in once or you would asphyxiate.”

Another witness, Sayed Tawfik, told AFP news agency that “some threw themselves out of windows to escape the fire.” He pointed to a car bearing dents “left by a person who is now lying in the hospital with a broken arm and back.”

A statement from the public prosecutor’s office suggested that the deaths were caused by asphyxiation, as there were “no visible injuries.”

INNUMBERS

• $5,226 Compensation to be paid to victims’ families.

• $1,045 Compensation to be paid to those injured.

The Egyptian interior ministry said that “forensic evidence revealed that the blaze broke out in an air-conditioning unit on the second floor of the church building,” which also houses social services.

Father Farid Fahmy, from a nearby church, said a short circuit caused the fire.

“The power was out and they were using a generator,” he said. “When the power came back, it caused an overload.”

Accidental fires are not uncommon in the sprawling city of Cairo, where millions live in informal settlements. Last year, at least 20 people died in a blaze in a clothing factory on the outskirts of the capital.




The deaths were caused by asphyxiation. (AFP) 

Following the Abu Sifin church fire, Giza’s governor ordered “urgent aid of 50,000 pounds (around $2,600) for the families of the deceased and 10,000 pounds for the injured.”

Prosecutor-General Hamada El-Sawy said that the public prosecution authority had completed its investigation into the fire and found that the victims died of smoke inhalation.

The interior ministry confirmed that the blaze was caused by an electrical fault in the air-conditioning system on the second floor of the church building, which includes a number of classrooms.

Mostafa Madbouly, Egypt’s prime minister, directed the minister of social solidarity to pay compensation of EGP100,000 to victims’ families and a maximum of EGP20,000 to those injured.

Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, making up around 10 percent of Egypt’s 107 million Muslim-majority population. They justifiably claim to be the original Egyptians, with their liturgical language descended directly from the language of the pharaohs. Many Copts can trace their heritage back to ancient Egypt.




The blaze broke out in an air-conditioning unit on the second floor. according to authorities. (AFP)

For many, the fire brought back painful memories of deadly attacks by Islamist extremists, including a bombing at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral that killed 25 people in 2016 and a gunman who killed nine worshippers at another church the following year.

Copts have lived through times of both harmony and adversity throughout much of Egypt’s long history. In the 20th century, many were pushed out of political life. Others have deplored restrictive legislation for the construction and renovation of churches.

El-Sisi, who was elected in 2014, became the first Egyptian president to attend the Coptic Christmas mass every year. In February, he appointed the first-ever Coptic judge to head the Supreme Constitutional Court, the country’s highest legal body.

Muslim religious officials in Egypt expressed their condolences to the grieving Coptic community.

Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb pledged to aid the families of the victims and is coordinating cash payouts with various NGOs. He also sent a message of support to Pope Tawadros II.




Many of the 5,000 worshippers who had gathered for a peaceful mass at the Coptic church were forced to throw themselves from windows on to the street below. (AFP)

“Al-Azhar and its scholars and sheikhs all stand by their brothers in this tragic accident and extend their sincere condolences to the families of the victims,” he said, and affirmed “the readiness of Al-Azhar hospitals to receive the injured.”

The tragedy resulted in an outpouring of support from across Egypt and the world. In a statement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres offered his “deepest condolences” to families of the victims.

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia offered their condolences to El-Sisi and the victims’ families. They expressed “profound sorrow and sincere sympathy,” and wished the injured a “quick recovery.”

The UAE’s leaders offered prayers for the victims’ families and El-Sisi. President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum wished the people who were injured in the blaze a steady recovery.

Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s crown prince and prime minister, offered his condolences to El-Sisi and Madbouly.
 




Regional leaders have sent their condolences after the tragedy. (AFP)

Jordan’s Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh offered his “condolences and sympathy” to the Egyptian government, people and victims’ families.

Tunisian President Kais Saied offered his condolences to his Egyptian counterpart, and wished the injured a speedy recovery in a phone call following the incident.

Hissein Brahim Taha, secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, expressed his sympathy.

He stressed the OIC’s continuous support in solidarity with Egypt through tragic circumstances.

 

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Morocco arrests suspected Daesh group member

Updated 15 sec ago

Morocco arrests suspected Daesh group member

RABAT: Moroccan police said Thursday they had arrested a suspected Daesh group member, in cooperation with US intelligence officers, who was accused of plotting a “terrorist” act.
The 29-year-old man was arrested in the economic capital Casablanca “for his alleged involvement in the preparation of a terrorist scheme aimed at seriously undermining public order,” Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ) said in a statement.
The suspect had carried out “reconnaissance visits to identify certain security checkpoints, with a view to attacking them and using their weapons in terrorist operations,” the BCIJ added.
The suspect had reportedly sought to “join terrorist organizations” including those based in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in Syria and Iraq.
In 2003, Casablanca was hit by a dozen suicide bombers, killing 33 people and wounding dozens more.
Since then, Morocco has been spared major attacks, but its security services regularly report foiling plots.
Since 2002, Moroccan police claim to have dismantled 2,000 “terror cells” and arrested some 3,500 people in cases linked to terror, according to the BCIJ.

Iran celebrities warned against inciting Mahsa Amini protests

Updated 29 September 2022

Iran celebrities warned against inciting Mahsa Amini protests

  • A number of Iranian sportsmen as well as actors and filmmakers have put their support behind the movement
  • Iran’s judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei has criticized celebrities over their actions

TEHRAN: Iranian celebrities were warned Thursday against coming out in support of protests that flared across the country over the death of young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in morality police custody.
A wave of unrest has rocked Iran since the 22-year-old died on September 16 after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran for reportedly failing to observe the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.
The street violence has led to the deaths of dozens of people — mostly protesters but also members of the security forces — and hundreds of arrests.
“We will take action against the celebrities who have fanned the flames of the riots,” Tehran provincial governor Mohsen Mansouri said, quoted by ISNA news agency.
A number of Iranian sportsmen as well as actors and filmmakers have put their support behind the movement, asking authorities to listen to the people’s demands.
Iran’s two-time Oscar winning director Asghar Farhadi on Sunday urged people around the world to “stand in solidarity” with the protesters.
“They are looking for simple yet fundamental rights that the state has denied them for years,” Farhadi said, in a video message on Instagram.
At a football match against Senegal in Vienna on Tuesday, the entire Iranian team remained dressed in black during the anthems rather than exposing the national strip.
In an Instagram post, star forward Sardar Azmoun condemned the authorities and appeared to complain of a gag order against the team, before retracting his statement.
Another former prominent player, Ali Karimi, has repeatedly supported the protests and condemned Amini’s death on Instagram and Twitter, saying not even holy water could “wash away this disgrace.”
Iran’s judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei has criticized celebrities over their actions.
“Those who became famous thanks to support from the system have joined the enemy when times were difficult, instead of being with the people,” said Ejei.
“All of them should know that they have to pay back the material and spiritual damage caused to the people and the country,” he added.

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Lebanese parliament fails to elect new head of state

Updated 29 September 2022

Lebanese parliament fails to elect new head of state

  • Michel Aoun’s mandate runs out at the end of October
  • No candidate has emerged as a front-runner among the hopefuls

BEIRUT: The Lebanese parliament failed to elect a new head of state on Thursday to replace President Michel Aoun when his term ends on Oct. 31, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said he would call another session when consensus emerged on a candidate.

The bulk of votes cast by lawmakers at Thursday’s session — 63 — were blank. Christian politician Michel Moawad won the backing of 36 of 122 lawmakers who attended.

Unless consensus emerges on a candidate, the presidency looks set to fall vacant when Aoun’s term ends, at a time of deep financial crisis.

Reserved for a Maronite Christian in Lebanon’s sectarian system, the presidency has fallen vacant several times since the 1975-90 civil war.

Anticipating a presidential vacuum, politicians have stepped up efforts to agree a new cabinet led by the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Najib Mikati — who is currently serving in a caretaker capacity — to which presidential powers could pass until a president can be agreed.


Rockets hit central Baghdad for second day in escalating unrest

Updated 29 September 2022

Rockets hit central Baghdad for second day in escalating unrest

  • A similar attack on Wednesday wounded seven members of the Iraqi security forces in the Green Zone

BAGHDAD: Four rockets fired from eastern Baghdad on Thursday landed around the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone, home to government buildings and foreign missions, police said, as political unrest intensified.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the strikes and no claim of responsibility, two police officers said. A number of Shiite Muslim militant groups have offices and supporters in eastern Baghdad.
A similar attack on Wednesday wounded seven members of the Iraqi security forces in the Green Zone, and appeared to add a new dimension to a contest among power-hungry politicians.
Rocket attacks on the Green Zone have been regular in recent years but they are normally directed at Western targets by Iran-backed militia groups.
Those attacks have been rare in recent months. Wednesday’s attack took place as parliament was holding a vote to confirm its speaker.
The political crisis has left Iraq without a government for nearly a year after elections last October.
The crisis broadly pits the powerful populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, a political, religious and militia leader, against an array of mostly Iran-aligned political and militant groups.
Sadr, the biggest winner of the election, withdrew all his lawmakers from parliament in June and has sworn not to let parliament convene, fearing other parties will form a government without him.
The standoff spiralled into street clashes killing dozens of people in central Baghdad in August. Many Iraqis fear the same could happen again.


Imprisoned Palestinian-French human rights lawyer begins hunger strike

Updated 28 September 2022

Imprisoned Palestinian-French human rights lawyer begins hunger strike

  • Salah Hamouri is protesting against his detention, which is based on evidence he is not allowed to see and has been extended until at least December
  • Israeli authorities transferred Hamouri to a maximum-security prison in July after he wrote a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron asking for help

LONDON: Palestinian-French human rights lawyer Salah Hamouri, who has been imprisoned without charge by Israeli authorities for six months, has gone on hunger strike in protest.

Hamouri was arrested on March 7 at his home in East Jerusalem. No charges have been filed against him but his detention order has been extended until at least early December based on undisclosed evidence, The Guardian reported.

A member of the #JusticeforSalah campaign told the newspaper that negotiations with Israeli authorities on Wednesday for the lawyer’s release were unsuccessful.

Hamouri, along with 29 other detainees in Israeli prisons, reportedly began an indefinite hunger strike on Sunday to protest against administrative detention. This is an Israeli practice, commonly used against Palestinians who are subject to the military justice system rather than civil justice, under which suspects can be detained for renewable six-month terms without charge or any access to the evidence against them, on the grounds that they might break the law in future in released.

Israeli authorities say the practice is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks and protect sensitive intelligence sources. However, human rights campaigners argue that Israeli authorities use it excessively and it violates the right of suspects to due process

Israel is currently holding 743 administrative detainees, the highest number since 2008, according to Israeli human rights group HaMoked.

In July, 37-year-old Hamouri was transferred to a maximum-security prison called Hadarim, where he was placed in a tiny isolation cell. It came after he wrote a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron asking for the help of the French government, according to #JusticeforSalah.

His wife, French national Elsa Lefort, and their two children, who live in France, have been prevented from visiting or even speaking to Hamouri on the telephone since his arrest.

Hamouri has been imprisoned by Israel a number of times, including a seven-year sentence between 2005 and 2011 for his alleged role in an assassination plot against a chief rabbi.

While he maintained his innocence throughout three years of pretrial detention, he eventually accepted a plea bargain to avoid a 14-year jail sentence or deportation to France, which would have probably have resulted in him losing his Israeli-issued right to residency in Jerusalem.

In 2016, Lefort, who was pregnant at the time, was deported after arriving at Tel Aviv’s airport and barred from entering Israel for 10 years.

Hammouri’s Jerusalem residency rights were revoked in October 2021. The reason given was a “breach of allegiance” to the Israeli state, based on undisclosed evidence. This was a legal first, according to the Guardian. The residency case is due to be heard again in February next year.

“Salah has never stopped being vocal about the occupation. He is always speaking at events in France and tours, talking about the conditions of political prisoners and other violations,” a spokesperson for #JusticeforSalah told the Guardian.

“Treating him like this is a way to try and silence him, to break him, and send a message to other human rights defenders.”

In recent years, several Palestinians have gone on long-term hunger strikes to protest against their administrative detention. In most cases, Israel eventually released them after their health deteriorated significantly.

The most recent high-profile Palestinian hunger striker was Khalil Awawdeh, who was at risk of dying and suffered neurological damage as a result of a near-six-month hunger strike. He ended his protest in August after Israel agreed to release him when his current administrative detention order expires.