CAIRO — At least 41 people were killed and about a dozen others injured after a fire broke out in a Coptic Orthodox church in greater Cairo as worshipers gathered for Sunday prayers, according to the country’s Health Ministry.
The blaze at Abu Sefein Church — one of the largest in the municipality of Giza — was one of the country’s deadliest in recent years. It is believed to have been caused by a faulty air-conditioning unit on the second floor of the building, which also housed classrooms, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Father Mikhael Guirguis, the deputy leader of the Northern Giza archdiocese, told a church-affiliated TV station that he saw children among the dead. Another priest at a nearby church who also spoke to the same TV station said children had been moved to the top floor of the building when the fire broke out, rather than being evacuated.
The majority of the deaths and injuries were the result of smoke inhalation and a stampede as people tried to flee the burning building, the Health Ministry said. The Interior Ministry said that the blaze was under control.
Some residents of Imbaba, the densely packed neighborhood where the church is situated, criticized the response of the government and emergency services. One woman said in footage shared from the scene by Al Jazeera that emergency services did not arrive for two and a half hours.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi spoke by phone on Sunday with the head of Egypt’s Coptic church, Pope Tawadros II, and offered his condolences, according to a statement from the president’s office.
“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” Mr. el-Sisi said in a statement on Twitter. “I directed all concerned state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures, and immediately to deal with this accident and its effects.”
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 100 million population, which is mostly Sunni Muslim. The minority group is frequently the brunt of widespread discrimination and violent attacks, including by the Islamic State’s branch in Egypt’s Sinai Province.
The country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, said he had ordered an investigation into the blaze. In March 2021, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people.
Liam Stack contributed reporting from New York.
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