Cairo, Egypt — A fire engulfed a church in the Egyptian capital of Cairo on Sunday, sending huge amounts of thick black smoke into the air as worshipers worshipped, killing at least 41 people and injuring 14, the Coptic Church said.
The cause of the fire at the Abu Sefein church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation reported an electrical short circuit, according to a police statement.
The country’s health minister blamed smoke and a stampede as people tried to flee the blaze for causing the deaths. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.
Footage leaked online showed burnt furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the blaze while others carried victims to ambulances.
The Coptic Church quoted health officials when reporting the death toll. The fire broke out while a service was in progress.
Fifteen fire engines were dispatched to the scene to douse the flames while ambulances transported the injured to nearby hospitals, officials said.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by telephone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said.
“I am closely following the evolution of this tragic accident,” el-Sisi wrote on Facebook. “I have ordered all relevant state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures and immediately deal with this accident and its effects.”
Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar said in a statement that two of the injured were discharged from hospital while 12 others were still being treated.
The Interior Ministry said it received a report of the fire at 9 a.m. local time and found the fire started in an air conditioner on the second floor of the building.
The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed an electrical short on the blaze, which produced huge amounts of smoke.
The country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors was dispatched to the church.
Egypt’s Christians make up around 10% of the country’s more than 103 million people and have long complained of discrimination from the country’s Muslim majority.
Sunday’s blaze was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 others.
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