A relative of 8-year-old Mariam Ashraf Meseeha mourns over her coffin during her funeral Monday in Warraq's Virgin Mary church in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt's Christians were stunned Monday by a fatal drive-by shooting in which masked gunmen sprayed a wedding party outside a Cairo church with automatic weapons in an attack that raised fears of a nascent insurgency by extremists after the military's ouster of the president and a crackdown on Islamists. (Khalil Hamra / AP)
CAIRO — Egypt’s Christians were stunned Monday by a drive-by shooting in which masked gunmen sprayed a wedding party outside a Cairo church with automatic weapons fire, killing four people, including two young girls, in an attack that raised fears of a nascent insurgency by extremists after the military’s ouster of the president and a crackdown on Islamists.
Several thousand Christians gathered Monday for the funeral of the four members of a single family gunned down the previous evening, as the government and religious leaders condemned the attack.
Egypt has seen an increase in attacks by Islamic radicals since the military removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and launched a heavy crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. The targets have mainly been security forces and Christians, whom Islamists blame because of their strong support of Morsi’s ouster. In Sinai, suspected jihadi fighters have stepped up attacks on soldiers and police. In rural provinces of the south, there has been a wave of mob attacks led by extremists against churches, which have been burned and looted.
But the bloodshed in Cairo’s Warraq district was the first such violence in the capital, a direct shooting against Christians.
“With our blood and souls, we will redeem the cross,” a crowd of mourners chanted as the bodies were brought for the funeral Monday at Warraq’s Virgin Mary Church, where the attack took place. One male relative fell onto one of the coffins, weeping. In the church, they sang hymns, “Help us, Jesus. Forgive us. Bless us. Our eyes are filled with tears.”
Fahmy Azer Aboud, 75, sat stunned in the church, staring in shock at the floor. Sunday evening, his family had been waiting outside the church for the wedding of one his granddaughters to begin when gunmen on motorcycles drove by and opened fire for five minutes, then drove away.
Two others of his granddaughters, an 8- and a 13-year-old were killed, as well as his son Samir and Aboud’s sister-in-law. Seven of his relatives were among the 17 wounded in the attack. Several Muslims were also among the wounded, according to Church leaders.
“It’s God’s will. They are always beating us down. Every other day now, they do this,” Abboud said. He added that ambulance did not arrive for an hour and half while police did not arrive till later.
The military-backed interim prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, pledged the Sunday night attack would “not succeed in sowing divisions between the nation’s Muslims and Christians.”
The top cleric at Al-Azhar, the world’s primary seat of Sunni Islamic learning, called the shooting “a criminal act that runs contrary to religion and morals.”
In a brief statement, an umbrella group of Islamist parties, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which have led a campaign of protests against the July 3 coup, also condemned the attack.
“Places of worship are sacred,” the National Alliance for Supporting Legitimacy and Rejecting the Coup said in its statement. Morsi’s allies while in office included radical groups with a violent past and hard-line clerics who often engaged in anti-Christian rhetoric.
Christians, mostly from the Coptic Orthodox Church, make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 90 million. They have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority. Now they also have been increasingly targeted in a militant backlash after Morsi’s ouster. Islamists have blamed Christians for playing a significant role in the mass street protests by millions that led to Morsi’s removal. The head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, publicly supported the coup.
Attacks in August destroyed about 40 Coptic churches, mostly in areas south of Cairo where large Coptic communities and powerful Islamic militants make for a combustible mix. Those attacks, blamed by Christians and police on Morsi supporters, came amid a wave of retaliation after security forces crushed two Islamist protest camps in Cairo demanding Morsi’s reinstatement in a crackdown that killed hundreds of Morsi supporters. Clashes between Morsi’s supporters and security forces occur almost daily in Cairo.
Speaking on Egypt’s Orbit TV channel, Nageh Ibrahim, a former Islamic militant who has foresworn violence, said extremists are resorting to “mass punishment” against Christians and using attacks on them to pressure the government and the Coptic Church, hoping to “break the alliance between them.”
There has been increasing criticism from Copts that the new military-backed authorities are not doing enough to protect Christians despite the continuing attacks.
At the Virgin Mary Church, another relative of the slain Christians appealed to the head of the military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who removed Morsi, to take action.
“I want to tell el-Sissi that I love him, but he should stop forgetting us. We have reached the limit,” Maurice Helmy said.
A Coptic youth group, known as The Association of Maspero Youth, called for the dismissal of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who heads the police.
“If the Egyptian government does not care about the security and rights of Christians, then we must ask why are we paying taxes and why we are not arming ourselves,” said the group.
The Maspero Youth Association was formed soon after more than 20 Christians were killed by army troops cracking down on their protest in 2011 outside Cairo’s landmark, Nile-side state television building, known as Maspero.
Ishaq Ibrahim,a researcher at a Cairo-based rights group who tracks anti-Christians, said Sunday’s attack showed “a change and possible expansion of the attacks targeting Christians in Egypt and it could leave more victims.”
He blamed security forces for failing to protect churches. “Churches were torched, Christians kidnapped and now gunned down and there is no security guarding the churches. I believe there is collaboration,” said Ibrahim, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Sunday’s shooting also harkened back to an Islamic militant insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s in which extremists waged a campaign of attacks on police, Christians and foreign tourists, trying to topple the government.
Many fear a revival of that campaign. The army and security forces are fighting what in effect has become a full-fledged insurgency in the northern part of the strategic Sinai Peninsula, where militants carry out attacks almost daily since Morsi’s fall.
High-profile attacks blamed on militants have begun to creep into Cairo, the capital and home to some 18 million. In September, the interior minister survived an assassination attempt by a suicide car bombing in Cairo. Earlier this month, militants fired rocket propelled grenades on the nation’s largest satellite ground station, also in Cairo. The Interior Ministry reports near-daily discoveries of explosives planted on bridges and major roads.
Ansar Jerusalem, a Sinai-based militant group, claimed responsibility Monday for a car bomb that targeted the military intelligence compound in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia on Saturday. In a statement posted on a militant website, the group said the attack was in retaliation for what it called the army’s oppressive practices in Sinai.
The same group claimed responsibility for the attempt to kill the interior minister, as well as other attacks in Sinai.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael and Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report in Cairo.