CAIRO, Egypt — At least 11 people, including eight Coptic Christians, were killed after unidentified gunmen opened fire outside a church and a Christian-owned business in a south Cairo suburb, Egypt’s Health Ministry spokesman said Friday. It was the latest attack targeting the mostly Muslim country’s embattled Christian minority.
Late Friday, a local affiliate of the Islamic State in Egypt claimed responsibility for the assault through its Amaq news agency, though it provided no evidence for the assertion.
Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said the attack outside the Coptic Church of Mar Mina left at least one policeman dead and eight others wounded, including two critically. The attack took place when two gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire outside the church, he said.
Egyptian security officials said earlier that two policemen were killed in the shootout and the discrepancy was not immediately clear. The officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
A video circulated on social media after the attack apparently shows the gunman lying on the ground. Authorities have closed off the area around the church.
Samir Gerges, a witness, said people inside the church closed the gates when the shootout began but bullets from the gunfire still entered the building. Gerges said he was walking in a nearby street when the shooting happened. He saw people running and some of them went to hide from the gunfire inside a nearby restaurant.
Raouth Atta, 40, was attending prayers inside the church when the shooting took place.
“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 scattered everywhere.
The spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church said in a statement that at least six people were killed in the attack, including five Copts and a policeman. It also said there was a separate attack on a store in the same suburb of Helwan that killed two Copts.
Egypt’s Christian minority has been targeted by Islamic militants in a series of attacks since December 2016 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 affiliate of the Islamic State group.
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 contents and assaulted Christians inside before security personnel arrived and dispersed them.
Police officials say they’re stepping up security measures at Coptic churches ahead of Christmas celebrations, which, on the Eastern calendar used in the Coptic tradition, falls on Jan. 7.
Here is a look at major attacks against Egypt’s Coptic Christians in recent years:
December 29, 2017:
A gunman on a motorcycle opens fire outside a church and at a store in a south Cairo suburb, killing at least eight Coptic Christians, and a policeman. The assault took place early Friday when the gunman tried to breach the church’s security cordon. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
December 22, 2017:
Hundreds of Muslim demonstrators attack an unlicensed church south of Cairo wounding three people. The incident took place after Friday prayers when demonstrators gathered outside the building and stormed it. The demonstrators chanted anti-Christian slogans and called for the church’s demolition.
The demonstrators destroyed the church’s fittings and assaulted Christians inside before security personnel dispersed them.
Masked militants riding in three SUVs open fire on a bus packed with Coptic Christians, including children, south of the capital Cairo, killing at least 28 people and wounding 22 others.
The assault occurs as the bus is traveling to the remote monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor in Maghagha, in Minya governorate.
No group immediately claims responsibility for the attack, the fourth to target Christians since December of the previous year, but it bears the hallmarks of the Islamic State group’s local affiliate. The attack comes on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
April 9, 2017:
Twin suicide bombings strike churches in the coastal city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta. At least 43 people are killed and scores of worshippers injured in the Palm Sunday attack, which narrowly missed a ceremony presided over by Pope Tawadros II in Alexandria’s St. Mark’s cathedral.
Hundreds of Egyptian Christians flee their homes in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, fearing attacks by Islamic State militants. The group’s North Sinai affiliate had killed at least seven Coptic Christians in the restive peninsula in less than a month.
The Islamic State group affiliate releases a video vowing to step up attacks against Christians, describing them as their “favorite prey.” It showcased a deadly December attack on the church adjacent to Cairo’s Saint Mark’s Cathedral.
A bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo claimed by IS kills 30 people and wounds dozens during Sunday Mass in one of the deadliest attacks carried out against the religious minority in recent memory. The high death toll serves as a grim reminder of the difficulties of Egypt’s struggle to restore security and stability after nearly six years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising.
Pope Tawadros II says that since 2013 there have been 37 sectarian attacks on Christians in Egypt, nearly one incident per month. A Muslim mob stabs 27-year old Coptic Christian Fam Khalaf to death in the southern City of Minya over a personal feud.
A Muslim mob ransacks and torches seven Christian homes in Minya after rumors spread that a Christian man had an affair with a Muslim woman. The elderly mother of the aforementioned man was stripped naked and dragged through a street by a mob to humiliate her.
New Year’s Eve 2011:
A bomb explodes in a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria as worshippers depart a midnight mass, killing more than 20 people. No suspects have been named and the case remains unresolved. Attacks pick up in the aftermath of Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising that begins weeks later, then even more so after the army overthrows an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report.