One week after a fire destroyed a church in a densely populated area of Cairo, Egypt, church and family members have paid tribute to the victims on SAT-7. Two programs addressed the tragedy that shocked citizens across Egypt, providing spiritual comfort and support.
Fire broke out at the Abu Sefein church in Imbaba, Giza in greater Cairo during a morning mass on August 14. In all, 41 worshippers, including 18 children and priest Fr. Abdel Messih Bekhit, died, mostly from asphyxiation in the four-story property that had been converted for worship at a time of severe restrictions on the construction of churches.
You Are Not Alone, SAT-7’s weekly programming that covers the human stories behind current events, and a special, In the Midst of Darkness, heard from local people as well as church and civil protection representatives.
On Friday’s You Are Not Alone (August 19), viewers heard local neighbor Ashraf El-Shayeb tell how children at a nursery on the third floor were trapped as fire and smoke engulfed the third and fourth floors. El-Shayeb was one of many local Muslims who tried to intervene with Christians. He said, “We all ran to help the children because there were so many. We wanted to save as many as we could.” El-Shayeb, said the most painful thing was finding three triplets who had all died together.
Mark, the son of the deceased church leader, told You Are Not Alone that he first heard of the fire when his mother woke him. “I thought there would be just minor injuries,” he said, “I didn’t know the whole floor was on fire and they would be affected by the smoke.”
Responding to criticism that his father did not appear to abandon the service, he said, “In the video I could see him rushing in prayer and moving people outside.”
“To me, my father has always been a wise leader and a role model,” he said. “He built this church and was the leader and cornerstone of our family.”
Speaking of the Abu Sefein community, he said, “They treat me as their son and brother. I grew up with them. They all say I look like my father. Even though I am so young, I hope I can serve them like [my father] did.”
Church volunteer Nemat Beshay was also woken by news of the fire. “I got a call,” he explained. “I panicked and ran to the streets. What I saw made me sad. There was screaming, many people in the street, and the blaze was strong. I was in tears.”
Afterwards, Beshay went to console members of the church family. “People are in pain,” he said. “A woman who lost three of her children was crying bitterly. She blamed herself for taking them to church. Others were consoled because they know their children are in heaven with Jesus.”
He said his message to a grieving community was that “We are all in God’s hands. Let’s have a pure heart and be kind to one another. We don’t know the hour when we will see the Lord’s face.”
The second program, In the Midst of the Darkness, was aired on Sunday, August 21, one week after the tragedy. Following a video report of the incident, hosts Nermine Fayek and Mina Makram (pictured above) dug into the history that lies behind informally constructed churches like the one in the overpopulated Imbaba district. Permission for church buildings had been solely in the remit of the Egyptian President until President Mubarak delegated it to state governors. Under President El-Sisi the law was amended in 2016 to allow many churches, including the Abu Sefain Church, to be legally recognized.
Rev. Michael Antoun, Vice-Chair of a committee that advises the Egyptian cabinet, said that the building had met four safety levels required, although these are less stringent than for a new purpose-built church. Asked how the fire had such a devastating effect, he said, “We are still waiting for the investigations of the prosecutor’s office.”
A head of civil protection also joined the program to advise on fire safety in both the home and in public spaces.
Alongside questions about the fire’s physical causes, physician and evangelical speaker Dr. Shady George, told the program that people are also wrestling with theological questions. Many are trying to understand why God allowed the tragedy to happen. But both he and psychiatrist Dr Bassem Fayez cautioned against simple answers.
“Some try to find reasons to help people but end up doing the opposite,” George said. “Silence is best in the days after the event and not trying to analyze the situations because this could be hurtful. Some say this happened so that God would take his children up to heaven, but this is hurtful to the parents who lost their children. God is good and does not use evil methods to achieve good outcomes.”
Dr Fayez talked viewers through five or six stages of recovery from grief. He agreed that in the first stage a person is not ready to listen to explanations but “just needs to let out their sadness. One must respect each stage and validate their feelings. It is not against the faith to be sad,” he stressed.
Going beyond this, the interviewers asked their final guest, church leader Athanasios Maher, whether it was right to blame God in such a time of trauma. “I myself reproached God,” he admitted. “I asked Him if He felt our pain.”
But, he asked, “Who else will I go to [with my questions] when God is my Father? The Lord Jesus reproached the Father on the cross and asked why He left him.” Asked for his advice to the person in pain, Maher stressed the importance of honesty. Answers and consolation may take time, he said. “Talk it out with God,” he encouraged. “Let it all out. Be patient for God’s will and ask Him to explain to you and ask for patience to understand later.”
Please pray for all affected by this devastating fire, for God’s comfort at this time of grief and shock.