A fire erupted in the church of the Archangel Mikhail in the village of Naj al-Nassara in Madamoud, east of Luxor, during the early hours of Saturday 16 July. The police and firemen arrived at the scene around 4am, but the villagers had already joined forces and put out the fire which devoured the entire interior of the church. The firemen made sure the fire was entirely put out and cooled down the embers. Investigations into the cause of the fire are ongoing.
Saturday evening Anba Yusab, Bishop-General of Luxor visited the village, inspected the burnt church, and comforted the villagers. Luxor Governor Muhammad Badr arrived at the scene while Anba Yusab was there. They held a meeting together, but there was no official statement about the matter or any talk of compensation.
The Bila Hudoud (Without Restrictions) human rights centre in Luxor issued a report on the incident. The report revealed that the villagers of Naj al-Nassara woke up at 2:30am on Saturday to cries of help because of a fire that had erupted in the church of the Archangel Mikhail. The fire was raging on, and the church interior was destroyed.
Salim Seifein Qamhi, who lives in the vicinity of the church which is located in the midst of Coptic-owned homes, said that he woke up to screams so he ran outside to find the church on fire and an icon painter, Yasser Moussa, who was doing work in the church and resided on the top floor of the church building besieged by the fire. “He was screaming for help,” Mr Qamhi said. “The villagers brought ladders and a vehicle and saved him. They opened the doors of the church and we saw that the fire had eaten up everything inside: the wooden sanctuary, the iconostasis, the pews, the books, the chandeliers, the cupboards, the fans, a projector and screen…everything. We heard deafening sounds of explosions and crackling as the interior of the church gave way.
“The firemen finally arrived at 5am, but the villagers had used makeshift water hoses and put out the fire.”
Mr Moussa said that he was sleeping in a guest room on the top floor of the building when he felt intolerable heat and found smoke filling the place. He opened the door of his room only to discover a huge fire outside, so he quickly shut the door and ran to the window to jump into the street. The neighbours, however, had already gathered and were trying to put out the fire. They saw him and ran to get a refrigerator vehicle and ladders and helped him down.
The report cites the history of the church which serves some 520 [extended] Coptic families in Madamoud and the villages and hamlets in its vicinity. The church had stood for long decades as a mud brick building till 1980 when the villagers gathered donations and, over several years, rebuilt it as a modern concrete building. “The church was built in several stages, since it was financed through the hard-earned savings of the poverty stricken villagers,” the report says. “Since it was rebuilt in 1980, Luxor Bishopric has been demanding that it should be licensed, but no licence has as yet been granted to the de facto church. Yet the villagers were very happy to have a place for worship; they brought their children to be baptised there, and held their weddings and funeral services there.”
Safwat Samaan, director of Bila Hudoud, says that upon visiting Naj al-Nassara he was struck by the grief that engulfed the villagers; men and women shed tears, mourning their hard earned church. No one could figure out any plausible cause for the fire, saying that no candles were ever left burning and that the electric circuit breakers were intact so it could not have been an electric short circuit.
Mr Samaan brought up the question of whether the fire could have been an act of arson. “On 20 April 2016,” he said, “a fire erupted in the same way and at the same time, around 3am, in the Coptic Catholic church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in Luxor. The parallels are uncanny. It is now up to the criminal investigation authorities and the prosecution to find the answers.
16 July 2016