CAIRO — The children had gathered with their parents in a dilapidated church in a working-class neighborhood of Cairo where the Sunday service was a weekly ritual for many from the city’s Coptic community. But before the service was over, a fire had broken out and raged through the church, killing dozens, including 18 of the children — three of them from a single family.
All the children who died in the fire that killed 41 people at Abu Sefein, a Coptic Orthodox church in the Embaba district of Cairo, on Sunday were between 5 and 13 years old, said Father Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the church.
Salwa Sadek, a member of Cairo’s Coptic community, said she had once taught, at a preschool at another church, three of the children who died — an eight-year old girl, her brother, aged five, and another eight-year-old boy.
“I couldn’t believe this really happened,’’ said a distraught Ms. Sadek.
The fire, which Father Ibrahim said originated with an electrical generator used at the church, and the death toll, were devastating blows for the Coptic minority in Egypt, which has long complained of being relegated to second-class citizenship.
On Sunday night, the Coptic community struggled with the enormity of the tragedy; there were so many victims that funerals, long processions of mourners wailing next to white coffins, had to be held at two separate churches on Sunday.
“The situation is very difficult,” said Father Daoud Ibrahim, another Coptic priest, who officiated over 17 of the funerals at the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael church in the nearby al-Warraq neighborhood. “In situations like this you don’t know what to do.”
The discrimination the Copts say they face includes government restrictions on the construction, renovation and repair of churches that have left many of their houses of worship, like the Abu Sefein church, in disrepair.
Father Ibrahim, the spokesman for the Abu Sefein church, said the fire originated with an electrical generator used at the building, which also houses classrooms and the nursery. He said he could provide no further details about the blaze while the fire was under investigation. It was not immediately clear where the children had died, but witnesses described saving some children from the floor above the church, where the nursery and classrooms were located.
The fire broke out as worshipers were gathering for a Mass in the small building, where the generator was in use after power had been cut. When the power came back on, witnesses said, the generator exploded, followed by an air conditioning unit, setting off a blaze that tore through the four-story church and started a stampede of churchgoers.
Most of the deaths and injuries resulted from smoke inhalation and the stampede, Egypt’s Health Ministry said.
The tragedy also raised questions in a country whose government has long been criticized over its lax safety standards and poor oversight. The country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, said he had ordered an investigation into the fire.
Father Ibrahim, whose Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael church was the site of a drive-by shooting of a wedding party in 2013, said those who died in the fire are considered martyrs now.
“They came to pray,” he said. He said they went to give offerings to God, “and they became the offerings.”
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