CAIRO (AP) — At least 10 people, including eight Coptic Christians, were killed when an unidentified gunman opened fire outside a church in a south Cairo suburb, Egypt’s Health Ministry said Friday. It was the latest attack targeting the majority Muslim country’s embattled Christian minority.
Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said the attack outside the Coptic Church of Mar Mina left at least one policeman dead and five others wounded, including two critically. He also said the assailant was killed in the shootout.
The attack comes amid tightened security around Christian worship places and churches ahead of Coptic Orthodox Christian celebrations of Christmas on Jan. 7. Police forces have been stationed outside churches and in nearby streets churches across Cairo.
A video circulating on social media after the attack apparently shows the gunman lying on the ground. Authorities have closed off the area around the church.
The shootout took place when a gunman on a motorcycle tried to cross the security cordon outside the church, the Interior Ministry said. He was arrested carrying an explosive device.
The ministry said the assailant had also opened fire at a nearby store. The shootout outside the church and at the store killed eight people and a policeman. It added that the assailant was wounded in the gunfire exchange before his arrest but didn’t clarify whether the he died later.
Samir Gerges, a witness, said people inside the church closed the gates when the shooting began but bullets penetrated the building. Gerges said he was walking along a nearby street when the shooting broke out. He saw people running and some taking cover from the gunfire in a nearby restaurant.
Raouth Atta, 40, was attending prayers inside the church when the shooting happened.
“Once the gunfire was heard, the gates were closed immediately,” she told The Associated Press over the phone, “People were terrified and wanted to check on their families in other buildings of the church. We stayed inside for 30 minutes before we were able to get out.”
Atta said that once she was let outside the building she saw blood everywhere.
A statement from Egypt’s prosecutor general’s office said an investigation into the attack would be launched.
Egypt’s government has been struggling to contain an insurgency by Islamic militants led by an Islamic State affiliate that is centered in the turbulent northern Sinai peninsula but has also carried out attacks in the mainland.
The extremist group is targeting mainly security personnel and Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
Since December 2016, Egypt’s Copts have been targeted by Islamic militants in a series of attacks that left more than 100 dead and scores wounded. The country has been under a state of emergency since April after suicide bombings struck two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday in an attack that was claimed by the local IS affiliate.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation, and say authorities have often failed to protect them from sectarian attacks.
Just last week, hundreds of Muslim demonstrators stormed an unlicensed church south of Cairo, wounding three people. The demonstrators shouted anti-Christian slogans and called for the church’s demolition, the diocese in the area said at the time. The demonstrators destroyed the church’s fittings and assaulted Christians inside before security personnel arrived and dispersed them.