Tragic fire in Imbaba church and government response

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Tue, 2022-08-16
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Photo by Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse (AFP)


Last Sunday 41 worshipping Copts, including a priest, died in a fire that was followed by a stampede during the Sunday morning mass at the Abu Sefein church in Imbaba, part of the Giza governorate in greater Cairo. Among the victims were 18 children ages 3 to 16.


Dialogue Across Borders offers the families and relatives of the victims our sincere condolences. We wish recovery to the wounded. The fire started at about 9 a.m. local time due to an electrical failure in an air conditioning unit on the church's second floor, Egypt's Interior Ministry said in a report published by CNN.


Imbaba is an overpopulated working-class neighborhood that developed unplanned in the 1960s with the growing numbers of migrants coming from Upper Egypt and the Delta to Cairo. The expansion took place in a rather haphazard way in previously agricultural areas by local businessmen who catered to the need for low-cost housing for working-class migrants. Since roads were narrow and unpaved, sewage and other government facilities were absent, it became a slum and a hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism. In late 1992, al-Jamāʿa al-Islāmiyya established the "Emirate of Imbaba," claiming self-rule according to their own strict rules. This was seen as a challenge to the sovereignty of the Egyptian state which triggered the siege of Imbaba during which the government deployed over 12,000 police and State Security forces, along with one hundred personnel carriers and bulldozers.


I visited Imbaba in 1994 or 1995 with a group from USAID. They brought a sewage system to the neighborhood. Many other improvements were made in this neighborhood which contributed to the decline of the influence of Islamists. It is still a working-class area but the living conditions are far better than during the days of the emirate. The history of Imbaba is an example of how Islamism can take root if the government is neglecting a poor area.


Egypt is sadly a country where rumors fly which means that disasters can be attributed to people and groups who are widely mistrusted by large parts of the population. Often Islamists tend to be blamed in cases affecting Christians but in the case of this fire also church officials believe the fire was accidental. For Coptic Solidarity, an NGO in the USA, “the date of the incident leaves a lot of question marks, as it took place on August 14, almost the same day Islamists (mostly Brotherhood) attacked dozens of churches, schools and Christian homes on Aug. 15 and 16, 2013, in reprisal acts after the then president, Muḥammad Mursī, was overthrown.”  The statement displays great distrust to Islamists even though no evidence of their involvement in this fire has been reported. Providing accurate information and fighting disinformation is key in working towards better relations between Muslims and Christians in any neighborhood.


Working class neighborhoods as Imbaba suffer of poor implementations of safety standards and fire regulations. In March 2021, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24. Streets are mostly very narrow which are often blocked in traffic jams which make it hard for aid workers to reach locations when calamities happen.


The Abu Sefein church is one of the largest churches in Giza. It was constructed, as most churches and mosques in working class areas, without a permit. This is related to the haphazard growth of Imbaba in its initial years and difficulties in obtaining church permissions, certainly in an area that the government had not planned for the expansion of greater Cairo. The consequence has been that fire safety regulations were not followed. The church has been retroactively legalized, but it appears that this legalization has not resulted in better fire safety regulations.


Government responses were swift. Egyptian President ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Sīsī tweeted "I offer my sincere condolences to the families of the innocent victims who moved to the side of their Lord in one of the houses of worship."


The President directed state agencies to take the necessary measures to immediately deal with the tragedy and provide care for the injured. He also directed the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to repair the church. This authority has a good reputation with Egypt’s Christians since they rebuilt or restored tens of churches after they had been destroyed by Islamists in the aftermath of the overthrow of president Mursi in 2013.


Prime Minister Muṣṭafā Madbūlī visited the injured in different hospitals and said that an immediate compensation of EGP 100,000 will be granted to each of the families of each deceased person and up to EGP 20,000 will be granted to the families of the injured based on the degree of the injury.


Condolences and donations were also received from individual Muslims and Muslim organizations, including the Azhar.


The fire and the resulting deaths are tragic. The government responses, however, are far better than they have been in the past.


August 16, 2022

Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Dialogue Across Borders