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9 killed, several wounded leaving Egypt Coptic church

CAIRO (BP) — Gunmen killed at least nine people and wounded several others leaving a Christmas season worship service south of Cairo, the Egyptian Interior Ministry told Morning Star News.

Two gunmen on a motorbike attacked St. Menas “Mar Mina” Coptic Orthodox church in Helwan at about 10:30 a.m. Dec. 29. Eight of those killed were Christians, officials said, and some of the wounded were in critical condition. Coptic Orthodox Christians fear more attacks as they approach Christmas, which they celebrate Jan. 7.

In the Helwan attack, one of the gunmen dismounted and tried to break through the security barrier in front of the church premises, but police stopped him, the Interior Ministry said in a press statement. The assailant reportedly shot and killed the noncommissioned officer, and then shot randomly at parishioners exiting the church building.

Security forces returning fire injured the assailant while his accomplice tried to break through the security barrier and enter the church with explosives, the Interior Ministry said. One of the gunmen escaped while the other, who also had an improvised explosive device, was wounded and arrested, the ministry said.

The Interior Ministry reportedly identified the wounded assailant as Ibrahim Ismail Mostafa and said that he had been involved in previous attacks. State media said the assailant was killed.

Besides six people around the church building and the security officer, two other people were killed when one of the gunmen previously shot at nearby shops, according to the Interior Ministry.

The local Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for the church assault, the terrorist group’s Aamaq news agency reported hours later, saying it was carried out by a “security detail” and that one of its members was “martyred.”

Church staff members quickly closed the doors to the building as the gunmen fired at the door, walls and worshipers, leaving bullet holes and blood around the site, witnesses said.

“We were running everywhere, not knowing where to go in terror,” a witness told a Morning Star News contact in the area. “The man was walking in broad daylight holding his machine gun and shooting at wherever he wants. He showed no fear and was on a rampage.”

The witness, an area resident, described the scene.

“Empty cartridges were on the ground, the church wall was riddled with bullet holes, and patches of bloodstains on the ground had not yet dried,” he said. “People were crying, and others were silent in shock.” The exchange of gunfire lasted at least 15 minutes.

Security had been ramped up since early December with extra forces and police checkpoints at the gates, in addition to the church security. Some nearby streets had been indefinitely closed, while others had been closed only during church services. Police and other armed forces have reportedly increased security and closed all churches in the Helwan area.

Health ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed told state television that eight of the slain victims of the attack were Christians, and one was Muslim. He said there were five people injured, including two women in critical condition, and that one of the gunmen had been killed.

The Interior Ministry said the gunman who escaped is an active militant who has committed other terrorist attacks against police and military personnel. The attack follows the killing of a Coptic Orthodox priest outside Cairo in October, 2017. On Palm Sunday April 9, at least 44 people were killed and more than 100 were injured in bomb attacks on two Coptic churches in different cities in Egypt.

In late December, hundreds of Muslims attacked a church south of Cairo, wounding three people. Calling for its demolition, the assailants damaged parts of the church building and assaulted Christians there before security officers arrived, according to the Associated Press.

Egypt is ranked 21st on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of the countries where is it is most difficult to be a Christian.