It was supposedly among the most joyous of occasions—aren’t weddings, after all, always so? The church was bedecked with flowers, the guests dressed in their best; even the weather was at its summer’s mellowest as a tender, fresh breeze blew through the clear evening on that Sunday 20 October.
The wedding was to be held in the church of the Holy Virgin and the Archangel Michael in the Giza district of Warraq in Greater Cairo, a church popular for holding weddings. Its imposing two steeples rise high above the grand thoroughfare of the Nile Corniche, the wide road which runs the length of the Nile bank as the River flows majestically through Cairo and Giza. On the dome and cross behind these two steeples, the Holy Virgin made an astounding apparition in 2009; an unforgettable incident which endows the place with a special blessing.
It was a little after 8:30pm, and the glorious evening weather induced the guests to wait outside for the bride and groom to arrive, instead of going into the church. The crowd swelled as guests of an earlier wedding that had just concluded flowed out of the church. The lingering and chattering went on, the more the merrier.
Just then, tragedy struck. Eyewitnesses report two masked men on a speeding motorcycle opening fire on the crowd. Men, women, and children fell, wounded or dead. The first to fall was Camelia Hilmy Attiya, 63, who died on the spot, shot in the heart. Three others died and 18 were wounded, several of them critically. Among the wounded were three Muslims who had been sitting at a nearby sidewalk café.
Before the crowd could come round from the shock, the gunmen on the motorcycle had fled the scene.
The other three who lost their lives died either before or minutes after reaching hospital, among them Samir Fahmy Azer, 45. The 12-year-old Mariam Nabil Fahmy died on her way to the hospital, her body riddled with 10 bullets; and the eight-year-old Mariam Ashraf Messeiha could not survive the bullets in her little chest and breathed her last a few minutes after she had been moved to hospital.
An eyewitness told Watani of the heartbreaking scene of the young man Mukhliss Riyadh who went back to the church later in the evening carrying a plastic bag that included the blood-drenched clothes of Mariam Nabil whom he had carried on his shoulders and rushed to the hospital. “She didn’t survive,” he lamented, “How could her little body sustain all 10 bullets?” He drew out the pair of boots she had been wearing and, sure enough, one of the boots bore the mark of three bullets.
Card to pressure the administration
The police and prosecution hastened to the scene, and investigations began at once. An Interior Ministry spokesman the following day said the police was able to identify the culprits, and vowed they would be caught in a matter of 72 hours. But the Coptic community at large felt they had not been adequately protected, and have been victims of epic official incompetence.
Father Dawoud Ibrahim of the Warraq church said the attack was a horrible terrorist crime that targeted no one in particular, but was intended to terrorise the Copts and the entire community. He deplored the fact that churches are poorly guarded and demanded adequate protection, especially given that there are several dates and occasions that witness large crowds of Copts at church.
“Copts are being used as a card to pressure the administration and provoke a public sentiment of the inadequacy of the current regime,” Fr Yustus of the same church said. He, too, demanded better security measures, especially in light of the church being on a route frequented by Muslim Brotherhood demonstration.
Amid the turmoil in the aftermath of the shooting, two sisters Mariam and Ireni Adel Kokab, 10 and 6, were reported missing. Their parents toured all the hospitals to which the victims had been moved but did not find any of them there. They reported the matter to the police but the girls have, so far, not been found.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the Copts realise they are being penalised by the country’s Islamists who accuse the Church and Coptic community of having backed the overthrow of the Islamist President Muhammad Mursi last July.
Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi condemned the attack in a cabinet statement, calling it a “despicable criminal act”.
“Such terrible acts will not succeed in working a division between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians,” he said.
The Coptic Church issued a statement in which it condemned “this type of terrorist activity which targets civilian Egyptians who have every right to live in peace and security during this pivotal moment in history when Egypt is working for national solidarity.”
The Council of Egypt’s Churches, and the Catholic and Evangelical Churches in Egypt all issued messages of condolences to the Coptic Orthodox Church and congregation. Liberal political parties and groups, as well as rights groups and activists in Egypt also sent their condolences and condemned the attack.
A funeral service was scheduled at 2:00pm on the following day, Monday 21 October, at the Warraq church, for all the victims.
Monday morning saw the families of the dead gather at the Cairo morgue to collect the bodies for burial.
Watani met a distraught Ashraf Messeiha, the father of the eight-year-old Mariam, who was rinsing the remains of blood off his daughter’s body to prepare her for burial. Messeiha has a four-year-old son, Philopateer, who lies in a critical condition in the Armed Forces Hospital in Maadi, Cairo, to which the critical cases have been moved by order of the army leadership. The bereaved father lifted his eyes to the Heavens and couldn’t hold back the tears. “What can I say?” he said as he stood by his daughter’s lifeless body. “Why did my little girl die? Why is my son lying between life and death? Where did they or we go wrong? We did nothing but go share in the joy of relatives who were getting married. My daughter paid with her life for nothing other than wearing her prettiest clothes and joining in what should have been a joyful celebration. Now I have lost my daughter, and my four-year old lies in a hospital bed between life and death.”
It broke our heart to know that both the parents of Mariam Nabil lay in hospital and still did not know that their daughter had died. Bushra Fahmy, Mariam’s uncle said: “How can I tell my brother that his daughter died or that his two other children are wounded?” He said officials should not be content with denouncing the incident; they should bring the culprits to justice.
Outside the morgue Watani met the eight sons and daughters of the 63-year old Camelia Hilmy who was the first victim to fall dead in the shooting at the Warraq church. They were all in a state of shock, the women in mourning black. Camelia’s eldest daughter, Mary, was weeping uncontrollably; she had lost, besides her mother, other relatives. Again, the question that found no answer was what any of them had done to deserve such a horrible fate. A heartbroken Khalil George, Mary’s brother, said that four members of his family had died, and 11 others were injured. “My aged, ill father is still not aware of the death of his beloved wife,” Khalil said. “He always said she was the ‘light of our home’”.
Khalil told Watani that they had all been gathered in front of the church when a car suddenly turned and blocked the road. “A motorcycle came speeding by; three masked riders opened automatic fire at us. People fell, blood flowed all around; for a few minutes we couldn’t figure out where to begin: to move the injured to hospital or carry away the dead. Then we quickly decided we owed it to the living to rescue them first; my mother was left on the sidewalk for a long time till we could move her away.”
“The heavens will avenge the blood”
Khalil described the incident as a ‘catastrophe’ that will recur as long as the State takes no action when it comes to Copts and their rights.
The sentiment was echoed by other Copts. “Why do Copts always pay the price, with their lives and the lives of their loved ones, for being Egyptian and for being Christian?” asked a pained Saber Nawwar whose relatives had been injured in the shooting. “Where are the police and security forces? We love our Egypt and have paid dearly for regaining it from the hands of the Islamists.”
Monday at 2:00pm, thousands upon thousands of Copts flocked to the church in Warraq to attend the funeral. As they waited for the caskets to arrive the congregation began singing hymns, including the poignant Lord have mercy and I need you, Lord of hosts.
Presiding over the ceremony were the bishops Anba Raphail, head of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Bishop-General of Services Anba Yu’annis, Anba Theodosius of Giza, and Anba Yuhanna of Imbaba and Warraq.
Anba Yuhanna thanked all the attending officials, politicians and public figures who had come to share the grief of the Copts, and everyone present. Anba Yu’annis gave a word about those who over the ages had their blood spilt for the sake of being Christian. “They are martyrs,” he said, “and their blood will be avenged by the Heavens.”
Reporting by Robeir al-Faris, Nader Shukry, Michael Victor, Mariam Rifaat
23 October 2013
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