The prime minister pledged the Sunday night attack would “not succeed in sowing divisions between the nation’s Muslims and Christians.” Hazem El-Beblawi called it a “callous and criminal act,” and vowed perpetrators would be brought to justice.
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 90 million and attacks targeting them have increased in the aftermath of the popularly-backed July 3 coup that ousted the country’s Islamist president.
But the attack late Sunday was among the deadliest in weeks. Two masked gunmen riding on a motorcycle opened fire at a wedding party in Cairo’s Wara’a neighborhood as guests were leaving the Virgin Mary church, killing four people, including a woman and a little girl, said Khaled El-Khatib, a senior health ministry official. The attack also wounded 17, he said.
The top cleric at Al-Azhar, the world’s primary seat of Sunni Islamic learning, also condemned the attack in a statement Monday. “It is a criminal act that runs contrary to both religion and morals,” said Sheik Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the country’s Muslim majority, and more recently, over what they see as the failure by the government to protect their churches against militant Muslims.
“What is happening is that all of Egypt is being targeted, not just the Christians,” said Fr. Dawoud, a priest at the Virgin Mary church. “Enough! People are getting sick and tired of this.”
The manner of Sunday’s attack harkens back to Egypt’s Islamist insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s, when militants attacked foreign tourists, Christians and senior government officials.
It is also the latest in a series of high-profile attacks blamed on Islamic militants in the country’s capital—a city of some 18 million people—since the July ouster of President Mohamed Mursi.
In September, the interior minister, who is in charge of police, survived an assassination attempt by a suicide car bombing in Cairo. Earlier this month, militants fired rocket propelled grenades on the nation’s largest satellite ground station, also in Cairo. The Interior Ministry reports near-daily discoveries of explosives planted on bridges and major roads.
Clashes between Mursi’s supporters and security forces, occur daily in Cairo. At least 50 people, mostly supporters of the ousted president, were killed in the capital on October 6.
The army and security forces are fighting what in effect has become a full-fledged insurgency in the northern part of the strategic Sinai Peninsula. Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, has for years seen intermittent attacks by militants on security forces, but they have grown to be more frequent and deadly since the ouster of Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Ansar Jerusalem, a Sinai-based militant group, claimed responsibility Monday for a car bomb attack Saturday that targeted the military intelligence compound in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia. In a statement posted on a militant website, the group said the attack was in retaliation for what it called the army’s oppressive practices in Sinai.
The same group had also claimed responsibility for the failed assassination attempt on the interior minister, a suicide car bomb attack on a security headquarters in the town of El-Tor in southern Sinai earlier this month, along with attacks on gas pipelines to Israel and rockets targeting the Jewish state. The group also said it was behind a 2012 shootout along the Israeli-Egyptian border that killed three militants and an Israeli soldier.
Egypt’s tenuous security was reflected in a statement issued late Sunday night by the National Defense Council, a body that includes the president, prime minister, the defense and interior ministers, and senior army commanders. The statement signaled new measures amid growing street unrest and militant attacks but gave no specifics.
A wave of attacks in August destroyed about 40 Coptic churches, mostly in areas south of Cairo where large Coptic communities and powerful Islamic militants make for a combustible mix. Those attacks followed the death of hundreds of Mursi supporters when police raided their sit-in encampments in Cairo on August 14.
Islamic extremists are convinced that Christians played a significant role in the mass street protests that led to Mursi’s ouster. Their spiritual leader, Pope Tawadros II, has publicly supported the coup.
However, an association of Christian activists blamed the military-backed government of El-Beblawi for Sunday night’s attack outside the Virgin Mary church, saying it has failed to protect churches since the August attacks south of the capital.
A Coptic youth group, known as The Association of Maspero Youth, also called for the dismissal of Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, accusing him of “sponsoring” an April attack on the papal seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo.
The Maspero Youth Association was formed soon after more than 20 Christians were killed by army troops in 2011 outside Cairo’s landmark, Nile-side state television building, known as the Maspero.
“If the Egyptian government does not care about the security and rights of Christians, then we must ask why are we paying taxes and why we are not arming ourselves if the police are not protecting us,” said the group.