The extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility in a statement carried by the affiliated Amaq news agency but offered no evidence to support the assertion.
Coptic Christians, who have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim majority country, have faced escalating attacks from Islamist militants in recent years. Police stepped up security measures around Christian places of worship ahead of Coptic Christmas celebrations on Jan. 7, deploying officers outside churches and in surrounding streets.
Friday’s shootout occurred when a gunman on a motorcycle tried to break through the security cordon outside the Coptic Orthodox Church of Mar Mina in Helwan, a southern suburb of Cairo, in order to throw an explosive device, according to statements from Egypt’s Interior Ministry.
A police officer was killed in the exchange along with six worshippers, church and Health Ministry officials said. Another officer was among four people reported injured.
The gunman, identified as 33-year-old Ibrahim Ismail Mostafa, was injured and apprehended, according to the Interior Ministry, which also blamed him for an earlier attack on a nearby appliance store in which the Christian owner’s two sons were killed.
The statements made no mention of any accomplices. But Sherif Wadi, an assistant to the health minister, and state media reports said there were at least two people involved, one of whom was shot dead and the other injured. There were also reports of a possible third assailant who got away.
Witnesses described the chaos that erupted outside the church during a Friday Mass.
Tarek Afifi, a 30-year-old factory worker who lives across the street, said he woke up to the sound of gunfire shortly after 10 a.m.
“I went to the balcony and heard all the kids say, ‘Don’t go outside, don’t go outside,” he said.
At first he heeded their warnings, but after about 15 minutes, he went to see what was happening.
People were running back and forth, he said. He and his neighbors spotted a man armed with an automatic rifle sitting on a motorcycle in the middle of the street and started throwing stones at him. The man shot at them before approaching the church gate and opening fire through a glass door at the worshippers inside, Afifi said.
“One of the dead is our neighbor who sells coffins across from the church,” he said. “He happened to be inside.”
Video circulating on social media shows a group of armed men who appear to be trying to fire back at one or more assailants.
One man, hiding behind a car, brandishes an assault rifle as gunfire is heard. He disappears off-camera and is then seen running away. Moments later, a gunman in military-style fatigues walks into view.
Another clip captured by onlookers appears to show an attacker lying spread-eagled on the ground wearing a bulky vest that could contain explosives or ammunition magazines. A voice off-camera is heard saying that the man is still breathing, while another urges a growing crowd to stay away.
The Interior Ministry described the captured assailant as a dangerous terrorist who has been linked to several previous attacks but did not say whether he belongs to any militant groups. The suspect was found in possession of an automatic weapon, five magazines containing 150 rounds each, and a locally made explosive device, it said.
A joint funeral service was held for the eight Christian victims on Friday evening at the Virgin Mary church in Helwan.
Hundreds of mourners filled the church, spilling out into a courtyard and the street beyond, where they were joined by Muslims who came to support their Christian neighbors. The crowd wailed with grief and cried out, “O God!”
“We will not be silent if this keeps happening,” one man yelled as he exited the church. “We will carry arms if we have to.”
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offered his condolences to the families of those killed and ordered his forces to increase security at key institutions, his office said in a statement.
“These desperate terrorist attempts will not affect Egyptians’ determination and their national unity, but will only increase their resolve to continue down the road to purging the country of extremism,” the statement said.
Egyptian authorities have struggled to contain an escalating Islamist insurgency since the military toppled the country’s first democratically elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population of 95 million, are frequent targets.
Islamic State’s local affiliate, which is based in the Sinai Peninsula, has claimed responsibility for previous attacks on the community. They include a pair of bombings that killed 47 worshipers at churches in the northern cities of Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday and a blast at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral last December that killed 29 people.
The government also blamed the militants for an assault inside a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula that killed 311 worshipers in November, the deadliest such attack in Egypt’s modern history.
(Special correspondent Medhat reported from Cairo and Times staff writer Zavis from Beirut. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed reporting from Amman, Jordan.)
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