A gunman opened fire on worshippers outside a church in the Egyptian capital of Cairo on Friday, killing at least nine people, in the latest of a string of deadly attacks on the Christian minority.
The masked assailant had first fired at a Christian-owned electronics shop three miles away, killing brothers Romani and Attia Shaker, before proceeding to the Mar Mina church in the southern suburb of Helwan, where he began shooting and tried to throw an explosive device.
He shot two police guards – who had been assigned to guard the church ahead of Coptic Christmas next week – killing one and injuring another.
The church’s Father Boules told the Telegraph that 10 mins after Friday’s service ended the congregation heard a burst of gunfire outside. “I was taking confession at that moment and I rushed out my office and told all those who were left to get into the room and then locked everyone inside,” he said.
He said the gunman exchanged fire with the guards outside until they ran out of bullets. He then tried to enter the church but a member of the congregation had managed to close the door.
“Thank God for the big iron door, otherwise he would have got inside and there would have been a massacre,” Father Boules said. "There were lots of children inside waiting for Bible studies to start."
Yussuf Mohammed, a high school student, said he saw the gunman from his balcony which overlooks the church.
“He was shooting only Christians and avoiding killing Muslims on the street,” he told the Telegraph outside his home. “He shot the guards and then I saw him carrying a machine gun trying to run away.
“He stopped a man with a motorcycle and tried to take it off him, but the guy didn’t let it go and the gunman just walked away.”
He said there was then shoot-out when police arrived on the scene. “They shot him in the shoulder and the leg and he kept shooting at him after he fell down injured,” he said.
The suspect was handcuffed and taken for questioning.
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A video was posted on Facebook, taken from a window of one of the people in the area showing the terrorist walking down the street as he tried to make his escape.
Some eyewitnesses said that the police shot him and other said that it was one of the civilians.
Police announced plans earlier this week to protect festivities around the New Year and, on January 7, Coptic Christmas, with checkpoints around the city, but they were not yet in place.
There was no immediate claim of the attack, but Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and other Islamist groups have previously targeted security personnel and the Christian minority.
Egypt’s government has been struggling to contain an insurgency by Islamic militants led by an Isil affiliate that is centered in the turbulent northern Sinai peninsula but has also carried out attacks in the mainland.
More than 100 Coptic Christians have been killed in the past year, including in two bombings on Palm Sunday in April and a blast at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral in last December that killed 28 people.
The country has been under a state of emergency since April.
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 a church south of Cairo, wounding three people. The demonstrators destroyed the church’s fittings and assaulted Christians inside before security personnel arrived and dispersed them.