Accident or arson? You decide.
Recently, over the course of two weeks, three Christian churches were torched in Egypt.
First, on Sunday, October 13, “a massive fire swept through a major Coptic church in a Cairo suburb causing heavy damage, but no casualties.” Online images and video of the St. George Church in Helwan — considered “one of the greatest and oldest churches belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church” — confirm that, to quote Bishop Bishara, it “had been completely destroyed.”
“I immediately rushed to the church and found it on fire with heavy smoke filling the place,” said Fr. Andrew, who personally served at the church for three decades: “The old wooden building burned down very fast and the fire destroyed everything inside, even before the firefighters arrived…. Our loss is great. We have lost a great historical building and we can’t rebuild anything like it.”
A separate Coptic report in Arabic noted that “The fire destroyed an ancient history and rich architectural heritage unique to religious tourism in Egypt. Although there were no human casualties, the parish of Helwan and all Copts of Egypt are grieved [at its loss].” The congregation held mass in the torched church on the following Sunday (October 20). As one Copt explained, “I don’t know what to say. Either way it’s our church and we’ll continue to pray in it.”
Three days after the fire, on October 16, another blaze broke out in another St. George Church, this time in Mansoura (images here and here). “The fire completely ate up the wooden chapel,” stated the report. Five people—two of whom were firefighters — were injured in the inferno.
The cries of schoolgirls first alerted Fr. Samuel, who lives near the church, that something was amiss. He rushed out to find “a huge fire erupting in the chapel on the upper floor of the church and the services hall attached to it.”
Two weeks after that, on Friday, November 1, yet another fire broke out in yet another St. George Church, in Shubra. According to the report, “The fire had started at around 8:30am close to the church theatre hall, in a building adjacent to the church itself. Anba Makary, Bishop of South Shubra, was then officiating Mass on the ground floor for persons with disabilities. They were all safely evacuated.”
(Incidentally, that all three churches are named after St. George could merely be coincidental, or not. As a patron saint of the Copts, churches named after the “dragon-slaying” St. George are ubiquitous in Egypt; conversely, because the warrior saint is widely seen as a “protector,” if the fires were arson, the message might be: “he cannot protect you.”)
Preliminary reports from Egyptian authorities said that all three fires appeared to be accidents related to electrical or circuit failures, not arson. No concluding report for any of the fires has since been issued. This absence of information has not stopped state-run media from also presenting all three fires as accidents. General opinion among Christians, however, is that the fires were “not a coincidence.”
According to Fr. Samuel of the Mansoura church, “The fire started from the wooden ceiling of the adjacent hall.” Video footage, he added, indicated that something from the market behind the church was hurled onto its roof. Another clergyman, who is also a professional engineer, at the same church, said: “When we built the church, we designed the electrical circuits in the best possible way and we make sure to switch everything off when we are not around. Also, the electricity distribution panel is equipped with devices to protect against overcurrent and high voltage rise.”
A local source speaking on condition of anonymity added that a short while before the fires, the security services had contacted several churches and told to make sure their surveillance cameras were in working order: “This indicates,” he postulates, “that the national security had information suggesting that some churches in Egypt would be attacked.”
In certain respects, these recent blazes in Egypt and the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral in France are similar. To the casual observer, they appear as tragic accidents of historic churches. In both countries, however, a long paper trail of attacks on churches exists. In the days before the fire at Notre Dame, for example, a report revealed that, on average, two churches a day were attacked in France — a country that holds one of Europe’s largest Muslim populations — and in some cases had human fecal matter smeared on them.
In Egypt, attacks on churches are an even more common — and often deadly — occurrence. To name some of the more notable incidents, on Palm Sunday of 2017, two Coptic churches were bombed and 50 worshippers killed; on Sunday, December 11, 2016, a Coptic church was bombed and at least 27 worshippers killed; on New Year’s Eve of 2011, another church was bombed and about 23 Christians killed; and on Christmas Eve of 2010, seven Christians were shot dead while leaving their church. This is to say nothing of the nearly 70 Coptic churches that were attacked and/or destroyed by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in 2013.
Discussing the recent fires — which he does not think were accidental — Fr. Ephraim Youssef, a priest at the church in Mansoura, observed that “Terrorists change their operations, from bombings to burning.”
In other words, Islamist hostility for churches remains as keen as ever. However, instead of choosing spectacular bomb blasts, these three recent cases may suggest that those who hate churches in Egypt are turning to more subtle tactics — ones that look like and are dismissed as accidents, and therefore draw less attention and blame. Either way, Egypt’s Christians are left with fewer churches.