Christians mourn Cairo shooting that killed 4

Associated Press
A relative of 8-year-old Mariam Ashraf Meseeha who was killed late Sunday, mourns over her coffin during her funeral with others in Warraq's Virgin Mary church in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Egypt's Christians were stunned Monday by a drive-by shooting in which masked gunmen sprayed a wedding party outside a Cairo church with automatic weapons fire, killing several, including two young girls, in an attack that raised fears of a nascent insurgency by extremists after the military's ouster of the president and a crackdown on Islamists. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
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CAIRO (AP) — The elderly, silver-haired Christian could hardly speak Monday, sitting stunned in a church where the evening before, suspected Islamic militants on a motorcycle sprayed his family's wedding party with automatic weapons fire, killing his son, his wife's sister and two granddaughters aged 8 and 12.

"It's God's will. They are always beating us down. Every other day now, they do this," the 75-year-old Fahmy Azer Abboud said as he waited for their funeral to start.

He spoke haltingly of his dead granddaughters, both named Mariam.

"They were pure angels. They had the world's kindness inside them. They helped me and shared with me everything they had," Abboud said.

The girls were waiting to enter the Church of the Virgin Mary in Cairo's Warraq district for the wedding of another of Abboud's granddaughters when the gunmen struck about 9 p.m. Sunday. The wounded included seven relatives, with his other son, Nabil, among them, he said.

The shooting deepened panic among Egypt's minority Coptic Christians, already the target of centuries of discrimination by the Muslim majority. It also raised fears that an insurgency by Islamic extremists in the strategic Sinai Peninsula and an increase in attacks in rural areas may be shifting to the capital, a city of 18 million people already beset by crime and poverty.

The violence by Islamic radicals has risen since the military deposed President Mohammed Morsi in July and cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. The attacks have targeted mainly security forces and Christians, whom the Islamists blame because of their strong support of Morsi's ouster. In Sinai, suspected jihadist fighters have stepped up violence against soldiers and police since the coup.

Sunday's shooting also recalled an Islamic militant insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s, when extremists waged a campaign against police, Christians and foreign tourists, trying to topple the government of now-ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Many fear a revival of that wave of violence.

High-profile attacks blamed on militants have already begun to creep into Cairo. In September, the interior minister, who heads the police, survived an assassination attempt by a suicide car bombing. Earlier this month, militants fired rocket-propelled grenades on the nation's largest satellite ground station, also in the capital.

Witnesses said a car blocked traffic outside the Coptic church minutes before the shooting, allowing the gunmen on the motorcycle the space they needed and giving them a relatively easy getaway.

The funeral of the four victims was attended by several thousand Christians who spelled into the street. Their grief was mixed with anger and disbelief.

"With our blood and souls, we will redeem the cross," they chanted as the four coffins were about to be brought into the church.

Addressing the mourners, a young member of the choir said: "Even in these circumstances, we can only talk of the heavens above and ask for the help of Christ."

A prayer followed: "Help us, Jesus. Forgive us. Bless us. Our eyes are filled with tears."

Women wept hysterically and the congregation joined in, "Ya Allah," — "Oh God."

When the caskets arrived, mourners rushed to touch them. Some men fell onto the coffins, also weeping, as priests pushed them away. The atmosphere was raucous, and one cleric sternly demanded silence so the service could begin.

"Those who cannot remain silent can step out for some fresh air. Let us show respect to our God and the dead," he said.

The attack drew condemnations from senior officials, something many Christians have grown to see as too little, too late.

Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi pledged the attack would "not succeed in sowing divisions between the nation's Muslims and Christians," and he promised that the culprits would be brought to justice. Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, top Muslim cleric at Al-Azhar, the world's primary seat of Sunni Islamic learning, called the shooting "a criminal act that runs contrary to religion and morals."

Pope Tawardros II, spiritual leader of Egypt's Coptic Christians, remained publicly silent. However, Anba Rafael, a top church official who led the funeral Mass, called for an end to what he called lax security and for justice.

In a brief statement, an umbrella group of Islamist parties, including Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, also condemned the attack.

"Places of worship are sacred," said the National Alliance for Supporting Legitimacy and Rejecting the Coup. The group includes hard-line clerics who often engaged in anti-Christian rhetoric and radical groups of Morsi allies that have a history of violence.

A Coptic youth group, known as The Association of Maspero Youth, called for the dismissal of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim over the attack.

"If the Egyptian government does not care about the security and rights of Christians, then we must ask why are we paying taxes and why we are not arming ourselves," said the group, formed in 2011 after more than 20 Christians were killed by army troops cracking down on their protest outside Cairo's Nile-side state TV building, known as Maspero.

Christians, mostly from the Coptic Orthodox Church, make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 90 million. Attacks in August destroyed about 40 churches, mostly in areas south of Cairo where large Coptic communities and powerful Islamic militants make for a combustible mix.

The August attacks were seen by police and Christians as retaliation for security forces in Cairo crushing two protest camps of Morsi supporters after the coup, killing hundreds of Islamists.

The Coptic community is demanding more protection from the military-backed authorities.

"Churches were torched, Christians kidnapped and now gunned down, and there is no security guarding the churches. I believe there is collaboration," said Ishaq Ibrahim of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Sunday's attack, he said, showed "a change and possible expansion of the attacks targeting Christians in Egypt, and it could leave more victims."

At the Church of the Virgin Mary, witnesses to the shooting spoke of what they said amounted to criminal negligence.

Ameer Shafiq, an 18-year-old computer science student, said he and others helped take the wounded to hospitals, flagging down taxis, minibuses and private cars. An ambulance, he said, arrived about an hour after the shooting and the police even later. At the closest hospital, emergency treatment was slow and most of the wounded had to be moved elsewhere, he added.

"Mariam still had a pulse when I carried her to hospital," he said of the 8-year-old. "She could have lived."

Shafiq described a bloody scene of "panic and hysteria" at the church.

"People were screaming. Some ran back into the church to escape," he said. "Then, there was anger, mostly by the women. They were shouting: 'May God kill them one by one!' or 'What have we done to deserve this?'"

Maurice Helmy, another relative of the victims, appealed to the head of the military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to take action.

"I want to tell el-Sissi that I love him, but he should stop forgetting us. I know that you know who did this. We have reached the limit. Beware of the patient when he becomes angry," Helmy said.

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Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report.

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