Eyewitnesses have described the moment a bomb went off in their Cairo church, killing more than 20 women and children, and injuring at least 50 others.
The death toll from the attack at St Peter and St Paul Coptic Orthodox church rose to 26 this week after ten-year-old Maggy Moemen died of the injuries she sustained in the incident nine days earlier. One Coptic man died, as well as the suicide bomber, who is believed to have worn a suicide vest. Some 14 people remain in a critical condition.
Relatives of those who died, who witnessed the explosion, spoke of terrifying and chaotic scenes as a wall of the church collapsed on worshippers, and of desperate efforts to find loved ones amid the rubble and shattered pews.
The bomb went off on the side of the church where women and children sat, separately from the men. The Coptic man who died, Nabil Habib, was a guard at the church.
This church CCTV shows a man in a long coat walking towards the church and a guard, Nabil Habib, running after him, before the side of the building is reduced to rubble
The 8.30am Mass, during which the bomb was exploded, was unusually well attended because that day was a public holiday (marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammad). That meant fewer people needed to attend the 6am Mass before going off to work.
The bomb reportedly went off as the priest was saying the prayer of the Consecration of the Elements.
Zarif Habib, said his brother Nabil, the church guard who was killed, had seen a strange man entering the building during the Mass, but did not manage to catch up with him before the explosion. Shortly before he died, Nabil told another guard, Saber Milad, that he believed the man had brought in the bomb.
President Fatah al-Sisi at the state funeral the following day named the bomber as Shafik Mahmoud Mohamed Mostafa, 22, but some Egyptians expressed doubt and some eyewitnesses believed the bomb had been placed by a woman.
Emad Thabet, a deacon at the church, said that a man had approached him as he left the church at about 11pm the night before the attack, after some other church members and the priest had finished the night prayer. The man, who was carrying a black case, said he was Muslim but wanted to find out more about Christianity. He asked if he could enter the church and talk to a priest, and the group advised him to return the following day at 10am.
“We recognised this person when we saw his photo on the news on Monday after al-Sisi named the suicide bomber,” Thabet said.
Nawal Girgis, whose aunt Amal Atta Bishara was killed, commented: “Christians in Egypt are targeted a lot nowadays. This incident isn't sectarian, it's a terrorist attack targeting Christians because Christians are peaceful and are the vulnerable community in the country.” Below, survivors recall the victims and their final moments.
Prayer of consecration
Emad Thabet, a deacon at the church, recalls: “The explosion took place at about 9:55am during the Prayer for the Consecration of the Elements before Holy Communion. We heard the sound of a very huge explosion and the whole church became dark. White dust filled the church, and there were screams everywhere, and bodies of the dead and the injured. You could see body parts, and blood splattered all over the place.
“A large part of the church ceiling collapsed, windows shattered, the main door fell down, icons were destroyed and the pews on the right side of the church were broken and destroyed.
“Immediately, the men carried the dead and the injured outside the church. Some people also came from outside the church to help us. Ambulances quickly arrived; the injured were moved to hospitals and the dead taken away.”
Fr Mikhail Anton, priest of The Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox church in New Cairo, recalls: “Nevin worked as an Obstetrics and Gynaecology doctor in Sheikh Zayed hospital in Cairo. She was single and was an active servant of the church, she taught the Coptic language and was loved by all the church members. She was kind and humble and had a strong relationship with God. She lived like an angel on the earth, loved all people and a smile was never absent from her face. She was always talking about martyrs and she hoped to be like them.
“Those who were martyred in this incident moved from the Mass on the earth to the Mass on heaven to complete their prayer with Jesus Christ.”
The frantic search
Sabah Wadih Yassa, 62
Sabah’s son Raymon Wadih recalls: “We went to Mass as usual: my parents, my wife, my three children (Thomas, 8, Giovanni, 1, and my daughter Avon, 4), and my sister and her four daughters.
“My father and I sat on the men’s pews on the left side of the church. My sister and her daughters, and my children, sat on the second pew on the right side of the church - the women’s pews - while my wife, Basma Sulaiman, and my mother Sabah sat on the fifth pew.
“Then there was a huge explosion; the church went dark, I screamed, “My children, my children!” I found my father in front of me. He tried to calm me down.
“I helped him out of the church and went back to search for the others. I heard my sister’s voice; she was lying on the ground screaming. I carried her out of the church with the help of two other church members. I then looked for the rest of my family, and found my mother lying on the ground, not moving. Some of the young people helped me carry her out of the church and we took a taxi to Dar El-Shefa hospital, close by.
“I left her in hospital where the staff were doing first aid on her, and rushed back to look for my children and Basma. I couldn’t find them, so I rushed to Demerdash hospital, next to the church. I spent half an hour searching for them – there were many injured, covered with blood. Finally I found Basma, my son Giovanni, and Avon.
“But I couldn’t find Thomas. My brother Ramzy came, I screamed, “I can’t find Thomas!” He went back to the church to search for him and ask the deacons if they had seen him. Finally he rang, telling me a church member had found him. Thomas had been taken to hospital with shrapnel in his head and face. Then I received news that my mum had died. Providence saved my wife as she had been sitting beside my mum, but a few minutes before the explosion she got up to feed Giovanni. Anyone feels sorrow when his mother dies but I'm sure that she is in a better place in heaven, and she has gained the crown of martyrdom.
“My daughter Avon hasn’t been able to sleep since the explosion; she is terrified. My children have seen terrible sights beyond their years, and this incident will impact badly on their life.”
Amany Saad Aziz, 32
“Wagdi Wageh, the widower of Amany, recalls: I was attending the Mass with my wife as usual. Suddenly we heard a huge explosion, the lights went off and the ceiling on the women’s side of the church collapsed. I rushed over to search for my wife. Rubble, dust and broken wood of the pews covered most of the bodies. I only recognised her by her clothing - her face was covered with blood and dust.
“Some young people from the church helped me to carry her out and put her in an ambulance. At the hospital the doctors tried to help her regain consciousness. Then they put her in a room for martyred victims. One of the doctors said, “I am sorry for your loss, May God grant you patience.”
“The day before the bombing, my wife felt that she would soon die; she was acting as if to say goodbye. My sister phoned us and said she would like to come to visit, my wife replied, “Wait for tomorrow and you will attend my funeral”. On Saturday evening, my wife also prepared a present, gave it to my mother and told her “this is to remember me by”.
“Although I feel great pain, I'm sure that she is in a very good place in Heaven. She was always praying, reading in the Bible and going to church. Pray for us.”
The new father
Nabil Habib, 45
Zarif Habib recalls: “My brother Nabil was a guard outside the church. During the Mass, Nabil saw a strange man entering the church and had his doubts. He tried to reach him but the explosion occurred as my brother entered the church. Nabil was badly wounded, lying close to the church door and covered with blood. Young people from the church carried him out and headed to Dar El-Shefa hospital but he passed away as he arrived. He looked at his elder daughter and told to her take care of her sister, brother and mother. Then he smiled and died.
“He had been blessed with a baby boy a few days before, and named him Fady. He had two girls aged 15 and 13, and had prayed for many years for God to bless him with a boy to take care of his two sisters and mother after his death.”
Killed on her late husband’s anniversary
Amal Atta Bishara, 67
Nawal Girgis, the niece of Amal Atta Bishara, recalls: “My aunt Amal went to the church on 11 December with her two daughters and son to mark the first anniversary of the death of her late husband Aziz. When the explosion occurred the church wall fell on her. Her son tried to rescue her but couldn't. One of her daughters, Heba, was wounded and is still in a critical condition.
“Amal was a kind and warm-hearted woman. She had a strong relationship with God, especially after the death of her husband. Our only comfort is that she went to Heaven.”
Eman Youssef, 40
Eman’s sister Magda recalls: “Eman and her only son, six-year-old son Steven, had recently moved to a new flat next to St. Paul and St. Peter’s and she was attending Mass there for the first time. During the Mass, Steven got up and went to the toilet. When he returned he found his mother, dead.
“He is now orphaned; he lost his father four years ago. One night when he was two and unwell, his father went out to look for a chemist’s. But it was December 2012 and the streets of Cairo were not safe. Demonstrators protesting against then-President Mohamed Morsi were attacked by those who supported the president. As Steven’s father tried to pass the demonstration he was attacked by a group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and killed.”
Mother and daughter
Madeleine Tawfiq Hanna, 49, and Verena Emad Amin 18
Jihan Moussa recalls: “My cousin Madeleine went as usual to attend the Mass at St. Paul and St. Peter’s with her husband, her 20-year-old son and her daughter Verena. Madeleine and Verena were among those injured by the explosion. Madeleine died on the way to El-Demerdash hospital while attempts by the doctors at the hospital failed to save her daughter Verena.
“We have a sense of pain because their loss is tough, but we are happy for them because they are martyrs. May God forgive whoever committed this incident and touch their hearts. Our God is the God of love and He has taught us to love our enemies.”
Marina Fahim Helmy, 20, and Veronaa Fahim Helmy, 18
A WWM sourcerecalls: “Marina and Veronaa put up Christmas decorations in the small bedroom they shared two days before they died. Decorations hung from the small chandelier and all around the room. Members of the church choir, Marina hoped to become a doctor and Veronaa an engineer. They were their parents’ only children, and their whole life. Now their parents Nahla and Fahim have shut the girls’ bedroom door - it was unbearable to see hand-written notebooks on the desk, and sniff the fragrance from the girls’ perfumes still hanging in the air - and have taken down the Christmas tree and the fairy lights. They are like Rachel, ‘weeping for their children and refusing to be comforted’ (Matthew 2:18).”
Below are the names of the Copts who died:
Marcel Girgis, 60
Nevin Adel Salama, 31
Rogina Raafat, 50
Nevin Nabil Youssef, 30
Nadia Anwar Shehata, 60
Jihan Alber, 55
Verena Emad Amin, 18
and her mother Madeleine Tawfiq Hanna, 49
Samia Gamil, 36
Sohair Mahrous, 60
Amal Atta Bishara
Attiyat Saeed Sarhan
Eman Youssef, 40
Amany Saad Aziz, 32
Sabah Wadih Yassa, 62
Mohsena Ammonius, 35
Marina Fahim Helmy, 20
and her sister Veronaa Fahim Helmy, 18
Ensaf Adel Kamel, 18
Samia Fawazy, 60
Nabil Habib, 45
Angel Marcus, 40, who died on December 13
Odette Saleh, 63, who died on December 16
Maggy Moemen, 10, who died on December 20.
Courtesy: World Watch Monitor
Photo: Victims of the Cairo church bomb: Madeleine Tawfiq Hanna & her daughter Verena Emad Amin
Photo courtesy: World Watch Monitor
Publication date: December 27, 2016