This version contains updated information about the details of the attack, and comments from witnesses contacted by World Watch Monitor.
Several Christians were gunned down as they left church services on the morning of 29 December near the Egyptian capital, Cairo, the Coptic Church and various government authorities reported.
At least two assailants were involved in the 10.30am attack on the Mar Mina and Pope Kyrillos VI Coptic Orthodox Church in the Helwan district south of Cairo, government officials and witnesses said. The church was full of worshipers, who were leaving the building, a Coptic Church spokesman told the New York Times.
Prior to arriving at the church, at least one of the church attackers first fired on a Coptic-owned appliance shop, killing two brothers – sons of the owner, according to a statement by the Coptic Church posted on Facebook.
CNN reported that the Coptic archbishop of the Helwan district, Father Ebram Mihail, said the attack on the church began 10 minutes after services had ended. People were streaming out of the door when they were gunned down, and those still inside heard gunfire for 15 minutes, he said. Witnesses told the Associated Press that church members closed the gates, and people on the streets darted for cover.
The Interior Ministry told news media that a gunman on a motorcycle, having already killed several people, tried to break through a security barrier outside the church. He was shot in an exchange of gunfire with security personnel, the news service Al Arabiya English reported, citing police officials, and did not get into the church.
“The two masked gunmen stopped their motorcycle in Mostafa Fahmy Street, one of them carrying an automatic weapon, wearing a protective jacket, and there was a handbag on his shoulder,” said Girgis Nady, a member of the congregation. One of the men “got off the motorcycle and walked to the church, and approached the policemen who were assigned to guard the church. He shot at them,” he told World Watch Monitor.
Church members were leaving the building when the shooting started, Nady said. The gunman, he said, “tried to enter the church, but the church’s youth were able to close its main door from inside, and that was a miracle from God to protect His people, because if this terrorist had been able to enter the church, the number of the victims would have been hundreds”.
The attacker broke the glass in the door and began shooting through it, Nady said. Another armed man then arrived on another motorcycle and started firing towards the church. Police then began exchanging fire with the attackers, injuring one. The other fled on his motorcycle, he said.
The Guardian reported that a second attacker was arrested as he tried to flee the scene. On the whole, however, early media reports were inconsistent on whether there was one, or two, attackers, and which of them had been arrested. Most reports indicated that one of the attackers had been killed and another arrested, but details were inconsistent. One was reported to have an explosive device; photos circulated on social media purported to show one of the attackers, dead in the street and wearing a bulky vest.
The attack was carried out by an affiliate of the Islamic State group, according to a statement posted on the messaging app Telegram, the Times reported.
Ambulances arrived an hour after the shooting, witnesses told World Watch Monitor.
Accounts of the number of people killed and injured by the attackers varied.
Number of people killed and injuredGovernment sources and news media provided varying accounts of the death toll at Mar Nina church south of Cairo on Dec. 29
|Worshipers at the church||Nearby Coptic-owned shop||Unspecified||Police / security officer at church||Attacker||Total dead||Injured||Source|
|5||2||1||8||Coptic Church statement posted on Facebook|
|5||2||1||8||Mada Masr, citing the Coptic Church|
|10||10||Mada Masr, citing the health ministry|
|9||1||10||5||Reuters, citing the interior and health ministries|
|8||1||1||10||5||AP, citing the health ministry|
|6||2||1||1||10||4||Ahram Online, citing interior and health ministries|
|5||2||1||1||9||"Several"||The Guardian, citing interior ministry, Coptic Church statement|
|6||2||1||9||BBC, citing interior ministry|
|8||1||1||10||5||CNN, citing health ministry|
|9||1||10||5||Al Arabiya English, citing health ministry and the Coptic Church|
|6||2||1||1||10||Unspecified number||Daily Nation, citing interior and health ministries|
|8||2||1||1||12||9||New York Times, citing Coptic Church spokesman|
A funeral was held at The Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox church in Helwan at 7pm on 29 December for eight of the Christians who had been killed. Among the thousands of Egyptians – Christians and Muslims – attending the service were Anba Basanti, Bishop of Helwan; and Bishop General Raphael, Bishop of the Central Cairo Churches and Secretary of the Holy Synod.
The eight were buried in the cemetery of the monastery of Anba Barsoum El-Erian, in 15th of May City, a suburb east of Helwan.
After the attack, a protest formed outside the St. Barsoum El-Erian monastery in Helwan. Condemnations arose from across Egypt and around the world:
The World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit condemned the twin attacks on Coptic Christians in the Helwan area south of Cairo. Ten people died when gunmen tried to storm the Mar Mina church, a Coptic Christian church… https://t.co/UlqPlx5v4D #WCC
— WCC (@Oikoumene) December 29, 2017
I strongly condemn today’s cowardly attack on Mar Mina church in Helwan city and offer the condolences of the UK to the families of the victims of the attack. The UK will continue to stand with #Egypt in the fight against terrorism.
— Alistair Burt (@AlistairBurtUK) December 29, 2017
Tragic news of attacks on #Coptic churches and worshippers in #Helwan #CairoChurchShooting. Alongside #Christians, police officers and one assailant also reportedly killed. #RIP. Praying for the safety of all over this #NewYear and #NativityFeast period. https://t.co/aY6qgptKDT
— Bishop Angaelos ن (@BishopAngaelos) December 29, 2017
Funeral preparations for some of the massacred Copts of Helwan, Cairo. #Justice4Copts pic.twitter.com/yeLZimb0xc
— Aus Coptic Movement (@auscma) December 29, 2017
The Egyptian Army announced in November that it was deploying soldiers to houses of worship and public buildings to help the interior ministry with security during the holiday season. There was minimal security presence at Mar Mina on 29 December, according to Fr. Baouls Younan, a priest at the church.
“It is a small church and the number of the policemen who were assigned to guard the church was very few, and it was very easy for them to attack them and control the situation,” Younan told World Watch Monitor. “They knew the entrances and exits of the church very well. First they attacked the shop, to make the police busy by this incident, and to carry out their attack on the church easily.”
Islamist violence against Egyptian Christians has escalated during the past year. Making up about 10 per cent of the population, they live in a deeply polarised society, caught between secular nationalists and radical Islamists. In 2013 they were perceived as supporting the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government. Scores of churches across the country were attacked and burned. IS has vowed to “wipe them out”.
Egypt is No. 21 on the World Watch List, a ranking of the 50 countries were it is most difficult for Christians to live. It is published by Open Doors, a global NGO that serves Christians who live under pressure because of their faith.