Cairo (AINA) -- The Coptic Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter in the town of Shebin el Kom, 60 kilometers northwest of Cairo, was burnt on 9/8/2009, No casualties were reported. There were conflicting reports as to the cause of the fire, the Egyptian police told the media that it was caused by a "short circuit" even before carrying out an arson investigation, while others believe it was arson.
Church authorities are keeping tight-lipped over the fire and refusing to comment before the results of the investigation are out. According to Free Copts, the priest and witnesses dismissed the possibility of an electric short circuit or a candle as the cause of the fire.
The fire started at about 3:00 PM, when the church was closed, after having had a morning service. It began at the central entrance door and spread inside to damage the church's interior. People who tried to help could not get into the locked church, "it was very frustrating to see the church burning inside and fire tongues coming out of the windows. We just stood there helplessly watching," a witness told Middle East Christian Association (MECA).
When the fire brigade arrived, the inside of the church was completely gutted. "Only the Holy Alter remained miraculously unharmed, but all the Saints' relics, icons and pictures were reduced to charcoal," commented a church worker. "All the beautiful features inside the church are now gone. It is evident by looking at the fire photos that they were targeted deliberately and maliciously in order to destroy them."
Several sources close to the church were interviewed, who asked to remain anonymous, believed that the fire was arson, caused by Muslim neighbors who were against having the church in their vicinity. They said that they have received numerous threats to have the Church firebombed. "We were enraged when they told us that the police report would be issued, as usual, blaming a short circuit for causing the fire, or in the worst scenario the arsonists would get off scot-free through the State Security's unofficial reconciliation meetings, in which Copts are forced to give up their rights for criminal charges," said one church member.
"The police decided before any forensics were carried out that the cause of the fire was caused by a short-circuit," said an unofficial Church source. "This cannot be true, as the electricity was shut off as usual before locking the Church and the panel boards are intact as the photos show."
Sherif Ramzy of Free Copts said that Coptic witnesses told him that while the fire was burning, Muslim neighbors were elated. To portray their happiness, Muslim women were letting out the traditional celebration sound "zaghroota."
Copts United were told "The reasons behind the church fire are the problems between the Church and the Muslim neighbors who are unhappy with the presence of the Church in their vicinity. The congregation was harassed, the priests insulted and threatened, and Koran chanting was played over the loud speakers during the Church services."
Coptic News Bulletin aired an audio with members of the Church who said that two Muslim men were always hovering near the Church since its inauguration a year ago, threatening and intimidating the congregation. "Everytime the Church priest reported them to the State Security, they disappeared for a while before coming back with more threats," said a Church member.
The Saint Paul and Saint Peter Church was originally an old Roman Catholic church, but due to the dwindling number of Catholics in Shebin el Kom, it was purchased by the Coptic church three years ago, and the interior was partly converted to Coptic Orthodox liturgical use. Coptic Church services started under last year. "The Catholic church was closed for a long time, so when the Coptic church started its services, the Muslims in the neighborhood became very angry," said one of the parishioners to Coptic News. "The neighbors were throwing dirty water from their balconies over us as we walked. The Muslims also complained that when weddings were held at Church, the number of invited guests with cars, led to traffic congestion."
On 9/12/2009 the Church congregation held a mass in the open air on the Church grounds.
By Mary Abdelmassih