One week after a fire destroyed a church in a densely populated area of Cairo, Egypt, church and family members have paid tribute to the victims on SAT-7. Two programmes addressed the tragedy that shocked citizens across Egypt.
Fire took hold at the Abu Sefein church in Imbaba, Giza, in greater Cairo during a morning mass on the 14 August. In all, 41 worshippers including 18 children and priest Abdel Messih Bekhit, died, mostly from asphyxiation in the four-storey property that had been converted for worship at a time of severe restrictions on church building.
You Are Not Alone, SAT-7’s weekly programming that covers the human stories behind current events, and a one-off special, In the Midst of Darkness, spoke to local people as well as church and civil protection representatives.
In Friday’s You Are Not Alone (19 August) viewers heard local neighbour Ashraf El-Shayeb tell how children at a nursery on the third floor were trapped as fire and smoke engulfed the third and fourth floors. He said, “We all ran to help the children because there were so many. We wanted to save as many as we could.”
El-Shayeb said the most painful thing was finding three triplets who had all died together. “We as Muslims pray they enter paradise and pray for their families,” he said.
Mark, the son of the deceased priest, Fr Behkit, told You Are Not Alone that he first heard of the fire when his mother woke him. “I thought there would be just minor injuries,” he said, “I didn’t know the whole floor was on fire and they would be affected by the smoke.”
Responding to criticism that his father did not appear to abandon the service, he said, “In the video I could see him rushing in prayer and moving people outside. He wanted to return to the sacraments after evacuating the people.”
“To me my father has always been a wise leader and a role model,” he said. “He built this church and was the leader and cornerstone of our family.”
Speaking of the Abu Sefein community, he said, “They treated me as their son and brother. I grew up with them. They all say I look like my father. Even though I am so young I hope I can serve them like [my father] did.”
Scene of horror
Church volunteer Nemat Beshay was also woken by news of the fire. “I got a call,” he explained. “I panicked and ran to the streets. What I saw made me sad. There was screaming, many people in the street, and the blaze was strong. I was in tears.”
Afterwards, Beshay went to console members of the church family. “People are in pain,” he said. “A woman who lost three of her children was crying bitterly. She blamed herself for taking them to church. Others were consoled because they know their children are in heaven with Jesus.”
He said his message to a grieving community was that “We are all in God’s hands. Let’s have a pure heart and be kind to one another. We don’t know the hour when we will see the Lord’s face.”
Fr Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesperson for the Coptic Church, told the programme that survivors of the fire were receiving high quality hospital treatment and that Pope Tawadros, the Coptic Patriarch, would meet with the families.
He told the victims, “My heart is with you and I trust the grace of the Lord to fill you and guide you out of the circle of pain you are feeling.”
Behind and beyond the tragedy
The second programme, In the Midst of the Darkness, was aired on Sunday 21 August, one week after the tragedy. Following a video report of the incident, hosts Nermine Fayek and Mina Makram, dug into the history that lies behind informally constructed churches like the one in the overpopulated Imbaba district. Permission for church buildings had been solely in the remit of the Egyptian President until President Mubarak delegated it to state governors. Under President El-Sisi the law was amended in 2016 to allow many churches, including the Abu Sefain Church, to be legally recognised.
Revd Michael Antoun, Vice-Chair of a committee that advises the Egyptian cabinet said that the building had met four safety levels required although these are less stringent than for a new purpose-built church. Asked how the fire had such a devastating effect, he said, “We are still waiting for the investigations of the prosecutor’s office.”
Alongside questions about the fire’s physical causes, physician and Evangelical speaker Dr Shady George, told the programme that people are also wrestling with theological questions. But both he and psychiatrist Dr Bassem Fayez cautioned against simple answers.
“Some try to find reasons to help people but end up doing the opposite,” George said. “Silence is best in the days after the event. Some say this happened so that God would take his children up to heaven, but this is hurtful to the parents who lost their children. God is good and does not use evil methods to achieve good outcomes.”
Dr Fayez talked viewers through five or six stages of recovery from grief. He agreed that in the first stage a person is not ready to listen to explanations but “just needs to let our their sadness… It is not against the faith to be sad,” he stressed.
Going beyond this, the interviewers asked their final guest, Fr Athanasios Maher, whether it was right to blame God in such a time of trauma. He said he imagined himself as a priest going to church to pray the last mass of his life. “I myself reproached God,” he admitted. “I asked Him if He felt our pain.”
He asked “Who else will I go to [with my questions] when God is my Father? The Lord Jesus reproached the Father on the cross and asked why He left him.” But “Pain is not from God, it is from humans,” he continued.
Asked for his advice to the person in pain, Maher stressed the importance of honesty. Answers and consolation may take time, he said. “Talk it out with God,” he encouraged. “Let it all out. Be patient for God’s will and ask Him to explain to you and ask for patience to understand later.”