By Amina Ismail
CAIRO, Dec 12 – Mourners packed an Egyptian church on Monday for the funeral of 24 people killed in a bomb attack at Cairo’s Coptic cathedral and angry survivors said police had failed to protect the Christian minority.
Tearful relatives gathered at the Virgin Mary and St Athanasius Church in Cairo where Coptic Pope Tawadros II prayed over the wooden coffins of victims of Sunday’s bombing, one of the deadliest to target Christians in recent memory.
On the walls hung banners bearing the names of the dead, many of them women.
Speaking after the funeral service, during which he shed tears, Pope Tawadros called the dead martyrs and sought to heal any sectarian friction caused by the attack, saying it “is not just a disaster for the church but a disaster for the whole nation.” He also condemned attacks against the security forces.
“Those who commit acts such as this do not belong to Egypt at all, even if they are on its land,” he said.
At least 24 people died and 49 were wounded when a bomb exploded in a chapel adjoining St Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo’s largest church and seat of the Coptic papacy, where security is normally tight.
The blast was caused by a bomb containing at least 12 kg (26 pounds) of TNT detonated on a side of the church used by women.
The chapel’s floor was covered in debris from shattered windows, its wooden pews blasted apart, its pillars blackened. Here and there lay abandoned shoes and patches of blood. Dazed church officials wondered around in their black robes.
Several hundred people gathered in the Madinat Nasr area furious at being denied entry to the funeral ceremony, where admittance was by invitation only. Security sources said police, concerned over mounting anger, detained at least 25 youths.
“They beat them up because they were chanting. Now they switched off their phones and we can’t find them,” said Atef Kamel, whose brother and cousin were taken away by police.
“They came to attend the funeral, so they got arrested … Isn’t it enough what has already happened to us?”
There was also anger at hospitals treating the wounded.
Five survivors at Dar al-Shefa hospital said police did not conduct the usual checks as the cathedral was particularly busy for Sunday’s mass, which took place on a public holiday marking the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, just weeks before Christmas.
“There were large numbers so people entered without being searched,” said Mina Francis, who was at the mass with his mother, who was killed.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who announced three days of mourning and promised justice, is to attend a public ceremony later on Monday.
Sisi is fighting battles on several fronts. His economic reforms have angered the poor, a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has seen thousands jailed and an insurgency rages in Northern Sinai, led by Daesh’s Egyptian branch.
The group has also claimed attacks in Cairo and urged its supporters to launch attacks around the world as it goes on the defensive in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but exiled Brotherhood officials and other militant groups condemned the church attack, while Daesh supporters celebrated on social media.
Though Copts traditionally support the government, crowds gathered outside the cathedral on Sunday demanded revenge.
Scuffles broke out as protesters accused police of security failures and demanded Sisi sack the interior minister. Some chanted “the people demand the fall of the regime”, the rallying cry of the 2011 revolt that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
At Demerdash hospital, crying relatives sat outside operating theatres dressed in black.
Doctors said the death toll was likely to rise as many had suffered serious injuries and hospitals lacked equipment.
Orthodox Copts, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, are the Middle East’s biggest Christian community. They face regular attack by Muslim neighbours, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or church construction.
The last major attack on a church took place as worshippers left a New Year’s service in Alexandria weeks before the start of the 2011 uprising. At least 21 people were killed. The circumstances remain a mystery and no one was punished.
Middle Eastern Christians have felt increasingly insecure since Daesh spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities.
“There were police cars stationed in front of the church gates … they were too busy eating breakfast and drinking tea and soda. They weren’t doing their job,” said Hani Gaballah, 43, a retired military officer.