x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

‘You will live my darling, don’t you dare die on me’: How Cairo church shooting shocked Egypt

Attack which killed two Christian girls aged 12 and 8 in their best dresses to attend a wedding, two of their relatives and a Muslim man outrages Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike and deepens their opposition to Islamists. Youssef Hamza reports

Egyptians gather at a Coptic Christian church in Waraa in Cairo after gunmen on motorcycles opened fire, killing five people including two young girls, two of their relatives and a Muslim man. Mohsen Nabil / AP
Egyptians gather at a Coptic Christian church in Waraa in Cairo after gunmen on motorcycles opened fire, killing five people including two young girls, two of their relatives and a Muslim man. Mohsen Nabil / AP

CAIRO // A deadly shooting outside a Cairo church that sparked nationwide uproar is likely to be a milestone in Egypt’s fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and its allied militants.

Five people were killed when gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on a wedding party in Cairo’s poor Warraq district.

While the death toll was relatively small given the scale and frequency of Egypt’s political violence since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, it was those who were killed in the attack — two Christian girls aged 12 and 8, two of their relatives and a Muslim man — that outraged Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike.

The shooting on Sunday, October 20 has deepened their opposition to the Islamists who take to the streets daily to demand the reinstatement of the former president Mohammed Morsi, who was removed from power in July after massive demonstrations against his rule.

The Muslim victim, who was shot in the head and leg, died last Thursday. His death rekindled the indignation felt by most Egyptians and reinforced the widespread notion that when it comes to violence by Islamist militants, Muslims and Christians are equally under threat.

Even before the Muslim man’s death, every detail of the attack touched a nerve in a country that remains on edge two and a half years after Mr Mubarak’s removal, with an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula and a wave of violent protests by Morsi supporters disrupting life in Cairo and elsewhere and keeping foreign tourists away.

The fact that it was two young girls, both named Mariam, highlighted the brutality of the attackers. The girls were related to the bride and were wearing their best party dresses for the wedding when they were hit by bullets.

The last, heart-wrenching words of one of the two girls, 8-year-old Mariam Ashraf, were recounted by her father.

“I was screaming at her on the way to hospital: ‘Mariam, bear up, you will live my darling, don’t you dare die on me,’” the father, Ashraf Meseeha, told the Al Shorouk newspaper. “Her last words to me were: ‘Dad, I don’t feel good at all.’”

Mariam’s 2-year-old sister and her mother, remain in critical condition in hospital.

Another newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm, published a story on how the older Mariam was remembered by classmates, with photographs of Muslim girls in tears over their loss.

The Brotherhood began losing its appeal soon after Mr Morsi took office in June 2012, mostly over his perceived failure to ease any of the country’s problems and his attempts to centralise power. The group’s popularity then plummeted further after Mr Morsi’s removal from power. The insurgency in Sinai and attacks across Egypt have retrenched the notion that the Brotherhood is using violence as a means to regain power.

Realising the magnitude of the backlash against it over the church attack, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a flurry of statements. The group sought to distance itself from the shooting and blamed authorities for not protecting the church. The mouthpiece of the group’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, claimed the shooting was part of a feud between families. On social media, Islamists said they suspected the attack was the work of security agencies trying to whip up anti-Brotherhood sentiments.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which also injured about 17 people but it bore all the hallmarks of Egypt’s Islamist militant groups, many of which were allied with Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood during his one-year in office. Even if Brotherhood members did not plot the attack or pull the trigger, they have contributed to a climate of fear, suspicion and anger.

Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin blamed the Brotherhood for the “continuation of the atmosphere of violence” since Mr Morsi’s fall from power on July 3.

Brotherhood leaders have engaged in anti-Christian rhetoric, claiming that they played a large part in the mass protests that preceded his removal by the military. Days before his demise, Mr Morsi himself said the church’s leaders wore smiles in his presence that hid a deeply rooted fear of Islamists. Christians had routinely been berated by Islamist TV channels that were loyal to Mr Morsi.

The death of the Muslim man has lent weight to what the Coptic church and the clerics who presided over the funeral mass for the four Christians have maintained since the attack took place: those who pulled the trigger in effect had targeted the whole nation, not just its Christian minority.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae