A policeman stands guard in front of Mar Mina church, in Helwan, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, where several people have been killed in a shootout outside the church. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A policeman stands guard in front of Mar Mina church, in Helwan, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, where several people have been killed in a shootout outside the church. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Gunman opens fire on Cairo church; shootout kills at least 9

CAIRO — A gunman on a motorcycle opened fire Friday outside a church in a Cairo suburb and at a nearby store, sparking a shootout that killed at least nine people, including eight Coptic Christians, authorities said. It was the latest attack targeting Egypt’s embattled Christian minority.

The gunman was also killed, along with at least one police officer, officials said.

The local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack late Friday, saying it was carried out by a “security detail” and that one of its men was “martyred” in the strike. The claim was carried by the group’s Aamaq news agency.

The attack began when the gunman tried to break through the security cordon outside the Coptic Church of Mar Mina. It was not clear how many assailants were involved. Egypt’s Interior Ministry referred to only one, but the Coptic Orthodox church mentioned “gunmen.”

Five people were wounded, including another police officer, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said.

The attack came amid tightened security around churches and Christian facilities ahead of the Coptic Orthodox Christian celebrations of Christmas on Jan. 7. Police have been stationed outside churches and in nearby streets across Cairo. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has personally chaired meetings with his top security chiefs in recent days to discuss security during New Year’s Eve and the Orthodox Christmas.

President Donald Trump spoke with Egypt’s president after the attack, condemning it and reiterating “that the United States will continue to stand with Egypt in the face of terrorism.”

“President Trump emphasized his commitment to strengthening efforts to defeat terrorism and extremism in all their forms,” a White House statement said. Trump has promised to make protecting beleaguered Christian communities overseas a priority for his administration.

A video circulating on social media after Friday’s attack apparently showed the gunman lying on the ground with his face covered in blood. Authorities closed off the area around the church.

The Interior Ministry identified the assailant as Ibrahim Ismail Mostafa, who, the agency said, was involved in several previous militant attacks. The Interior Ministry said he was wounded and arrested but made no mention of his death, which was reported by the Health Ministry.

The assailant had earlier opened fire at the nearby store owned by a Christian, the Interior Ministry said.

Islamic militants have for years battled security forces in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in an insurgency now led by IS. It is centred in the turbulent northern part of Sinai but has also carried out attacks in the mainland.

The militants are targeting mainly security personnel and Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

The latest attack, in the southern Cairo suburb of Helwan, showcases the difficulties faced by security forces in containing an insurgency that is growing in sophistication and brutality. The assault came a little more than a month after militants killed 311 worshippers inside a mosque in Sinai, the deadliest attack by militants on civilians in Egypt’s modern history.

Last week, they fired a guided rocket that destroyed an army helicopter at the airport of the city of el-Arish in northern Sinai during an unannounced visit there by the defence and interior ministers. At least one senior officer was killed and two wounded in that attack, which pointed to an unusually high level of intelligence available to the militants.

Samir Gerges, a witness to Friday’s church attack, said people inside the church closed the gates when the shooting began but that some bullets penetrated the building. Gerges said he was walking along a nearby street when the gunfire broke out. He saw people running and some taking cover in a nearby restaurant.

Another witness, 40-year-old Raouth Atta, was praying inside the church when the violence broke out.

“People were terrified and wanted to check on their families in other buildings of the church,” she told The Associated Press by phone. “We stayed inside for 30 minutes before we were able to get out.”

Once she was able to leave, Atta said, she saw blood everywhere.

“We kept praying,” said the Rev. Boules, who was teaching a class in the church complex. On hearing gunfire, he went to check on his students, who were panicking and terrified.

Since December 2016, Egypt’s Copts have been targeted by the militants, who waged 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.

The local IS affiliate has claimed responsibility for all the bombings targeting Christians.

Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population. They have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation and claim that 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, according to the local diocese. The demonstrators destroyed the church’s fittings and assaulted Christians inside before security personnel arrived and dispersed them.

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