Cairo church bombing kills 25, raises fears among Christians

A nun cries at the scene of the Cairo Church bombing

By Ahmed Mohammed Hassan and Ali Abdelaty

CAIRO (Reuters) – A bombing at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 people and wounded 49, many of them women and children attending Sunday mass, in the deadliest attack on Egypt’s Christian minority in years.

The attack comes as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi fights battles on several fronts. His economic reforms have angered the poor, a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has seen thousands jailed, whilst an insurgency rages in Northern Sinai, led by the Egyptian branch of Islamic State.

The militant group has also carried out deadly attacks in Cairo and has urged its supporters to launch attacks around the world in recent weeks as it goes on the defensive in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but exiled Brotherhood officials and home-grown militant groups condemned the attack. Islamic State supporters celebrated on social media.

“God bless the person who did this blessed act,” wrote one supporter on Telegram.

The explosion took place in a chapel, which adjoins St Mark’s, Cairo’s main cathedral and the seat of Coptic Pope Tawadros II, where security is normally tight.

The United States said it “will continue to work with its partners to defeat such terrorist acts” and that it was committed to Egypt’s security, according to a White House statement on Sunday.

The UN Security Council urged “all States, in accordance with their obligations under international law and relevant Security Council resolutions, to cooperate actively with all relevant authorities” to hold those responsible accountable.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis condemned what he called the latest in a series of “brutal terrorist attacks” and said he was praying for the dead and wounded.

The chapel’s floor was covered in debris from shattered windows, its wooden pews blasted apart, its pillars blackened. Here and there lay abandoned shoes and sticky patches of blood.

“As soon as the priest called us to prepare for prayer, the explosion happened,” Emad Shoukry, who was inside when the blast took place, told Reuters.

“The explosion shook the place … the dust covered the hall and I was looking for the door, although I couldn’t see anything … I managed to leave in the middle of screams and there were a lot of people thrown on the ground.”

Security sources told Reuters at least six children were among the dead, with the blast detonating on the side of the church normally used by women.

They said the explosion was caused by a device containing at least 12 kg (26 pounds) of TNT.

Police and armored vehicles rushed to the area, as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the compound demanding revenge for the attack that took place on a Muslim holiday marking the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday and weeks before Christmas. Scuffles broke out with police.

A woman sitting near the cathedral in traditional long robes shouted, “kill them, kill the terrorists, what are you waiting for? … Why are you leaving them to bomb our homes?”

“EGYPTIAN BLOOD IS CHEAP”

Though Egypt’s Coptic Christians have traditionally been supporters of the government, angry crowds turned their ire against Sisi, saying his government had failed to protect them.

“As long as Egyptian blood is cheap, down, down with any president,” they chanted. Others chanted “the people demand the fall of the regime”, the rallying cry of the 2011 uprising that helped end Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Sisi’s office condemned what it described as a terrorist attack, declaring three days of mourning and promising justice. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s main Islamic center of learning, also denounced the attacks.

Orthodox Copts, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, are the Middle East’s biggest Christian community.

Copts face regular attack by Muslim neighbors, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or the construction of church.

The last major attack on a church took place as worshippers left a New Year’s service in Alexandria weeks before the start of the 2011 uprising. At least 21 people were killed.

Egypt’s Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities. In 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya were killed by Islamic State.

The attack came two days after six police were killed in two bomb attacks, one of them claimed by Hasm, a recently-emerged group the government says is linked to the Brotherhood, which has been banned under Sisi as a terrorist organization.

The Brotherhood says it is peaceful. Several exiled Brotherhood officials condemned the bombing, as did Hasm and Liwaa’ al-Thawra, another local militant group.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II cut short a visit to Greece after learning of the attack. In a speech aired on state television, he said “the whole situation needs us all to be disciplined as much as possible … strong unity is the most important thing.”

Church officials said earlier on Sunday they would not allow the bombing to create sectarian differences.

But Christians, convinced attacks on them are not seriously investigated, say this time they want justice.

“Where was the security? There were five or six security cars stationed outside so where were they when 12 kg of TNT was carried inside?” said Mena Samir, 25, standing at the church’s metal gate. “They keep telling us national unity, the crescent with the cross … This time we will not shut up.”

(Additional reporting by Arwa Gaballa, Amr Abdallah, Mohamed Abdel Ghany, Amina Ismail, Mostafa Hashem in Cairo, Philip Pullella in Rome, Michelle Nichols in New York and; Yara Bayoumy in Washington; writing by Amina Ismail and Lin Noueihed; editing by Ros Russell and Raissa Kasolowsky)

France buries priest murdered by Islamist militants

Picture of slain French priest

By Antony Paone

ROUEN, France (Reuters) – Mourners crammed into Rouen Cathedral on Tuesday for the funeral of the Roman Catholic priest knifed to death at his church altar, as France’s political leaders sought ways to defeat home-grown Islamist violence.

Father Jacques Hamel was leading morning mass in the nearby industrial town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray last Tuesday when the attackers stormed in, forced the 85-year-old to his knees and slit his throat while chanting in Arabic.

Amid tight security at the thirteenth century gothic cathedral in northern France, a procession of senior clergy followed pallbearers who carried Hamel’s coffin through the “Door of Mercy” and placed it on an ornate rug before the altar.

The priest’s sister, Roselyne Hamel, told the congregation how during his military service in Algeria her brother had refused an officer’s rank so as not give the order to kill, and how he once emerged the sole survivor in a desert shootout.

“He would often ask himself: ‘Why me?’ Today, Jacques, our brother, your brother, you have your answer: Our God of love and mercy chose you to be at the service of others,” she said.

The service was to be followed by a private burial.

Hamel’s murder by French citizens was the first Islamist attack on a church in western Europe and came just 12 days after a Tunisian who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State drove his truck through a crowd of Bastille Day revelers in the Riviera city of Nice, killing 84.

Islamist militants have killed more than 200 people in France since January 2015.

Facing strong criticism from right-wing opponents over its security record, the Socialist government has warned of a long war against militant Islam at home and abroad in places such as Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said the state must reinvent its relationship with the “Islam of France”. France’s Muslim minority, the European Union’s largest, makes up about 8 percent of the population.

URGENCY

Since the 1980s, successive governments have tried to nurture a liberal Islam that would better integrate the faith into French society.

Meanwhile, the Muslim community, riven by divisions and power politics, has struggled to oppose radical Salafist groups that have established their presence in some mosques and neighborhoods as well as on the Internet.

Valls wants to ban foreign funding for mosques and says all French imams should be trained in France. His interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said that a foundation that would enable the secular state to finance cultural centers linked to places of worship would be established by the end of the year.

“We must guard against being paternalistic but we must have the lucidity to recognize that there is an urgency to helping ‘Islam of France’ get rid of those that undermine it from within,” Valls told the weekly Journal du Dimanche.

Some Islamic leaders have expressed doubts over the government’s plans.

“It’s on the internet that radicalisation takes place, not in the mosques,” Moroccan-born Tareq Oubrou, a leading moderate imam from Bordeaux, told BFM TV. “We mustn’t kid ourselves.”

Cazeneuve, whose portfolio includes religious affairs, said on Monday that the Socialist government had shut down about 20 mosques and prayer halls in recent months and that more closures would follow based on intelligence in hand.

(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Andrew Callus and Robin Pomeroy)

Islamist knifemen slit priest’s throat in church in France

Police outside of French Catholic Church where hostages have been taken

By Noemie Olive

SAINT-ETIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, France (Reuters) – Knife-wielding attackers interrupted a church service in France, forced the priest to his knees and slit his throat on Tuesday, an attack that President Francois Hollande said showed the threat from Islamist militancy was greater than ever.

Police shot and killed the attackers as they emerged from the church, freeing three hostages, one of whom was seriously wounded.

The knifemen arrived during morning mass in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, northwest of Paris, where the 85-year-old parish priest Father Jacques Hamel was leading prayers.

“They forced him to his knees and he tried to defend himself and that’s when the drama began,” Sister Danielle, who escaped as the attackers slayed the priest, told RMC radio.

“They filmed themselves. It was like a sermon in Arabic around the altar,” the nun said.

Speaking at the scene, Hollande called it a “dreadful terrorist attack,” adding that the attackers had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, the militant group that he said had declared war on France.

News agency Amaq, which is affiliated with Islamic State, said two of its “soldiers” had carried out the attack. Police said one person had been arrested.

Tuesday’s attack came less than two weeks after a Tunisian plowed a truck into a crowd in the French Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people. Islamic State claimed that attack.

France is a major partner in the U.S.-led military coalition bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. The White House condemned Tuesday’s attack and commended the French police’s “quick and decisive response.”

Several French media reported that one of the assailants was a local who had spent a year in jail on his return from Turkey after being intercepted trying to travel to Syria, but had been freed on bail with an electronic tag pending trial for terrorism offences.

The prosecutor’s office said the identification of the two suspects was still under way.

MERCILESS

A horrified local resident, Cecile Lefebre, said: “I have no words. How do you arrive at this point, killing people in cold blood like this? It’s pure barbarity.”

Since the Bastille Day mass murder in Nice, there has been a spate of attacks in Germany, some of which appear to be Islamist-inspired.

“In the face of this threat that has never been greater in France and Europe, the government is absolutely determined (to defeat) terrorism,” Hollande said in a televised address.

But former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is expected to enter a conservative primary for next year’s presidential election, accused the Socialist government of being soft.

“We must be merciless,” Sarkozy said in a statement to reporters. “The legal quibbling, precautions and pretexts for insufficient action are not acceptable. I demand that the government implement without delay the proposals we presented months ago. There is no more time to be wasted.”

The center-right opposition wants all Islamist suspects to be either held in detention or electronically tagged to avert potential attacks.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is also expected to run for the presidency, said both Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s parties had failed on security.

“All those who have governed us for 30 years bear an immense responsibility. It’s revolting to watch them bickering!” she tweeted.

Hollande said France should “use all its means” within the law to fight Islamic State.

Pope Francis condemned what he called a “barbarous killing”.

“The fact that this episode took place in a church, killing a priest, a minister of the Lord and involving the faithful, is something that affects us profoundly,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.

In a telephone call with the pope, Hollande expressed “the sorrow of all French people after the heinous murder of Father Jacques Hamel by two terrorists,” and said everything would be done to protect places of worship, the presidential palace said.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former conservative prime minister who now heads the Senate’s foreign affairs committee tweeted: “Everything is being done to trigger a war of religions.”

(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe, Marine Pennetier, Michel Rose and Richard Lough in Paris and Jess Mason in Washington; Writing by Richard Lough and Paul Taylor; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Robin Pomeroy)

Charleston marks anniversary of church shootings with memorial

Members of AME church walk down Meeting Street to a memorial ceremony marking the first anniversary of the shootings at Emanuel AME Church

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – The city of Charleston came together on Friday for a memorial and other events to mark the first anniversary of the murders of nine members of a Bible study group in what prosecutors called a racially motivated hate crime.

The events were made even more poignant coming less than a week after a gunman slaughtered 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, marking the largest of many mass shootings in modern U.S. history.

Security was tight for the service at the TD Arena, where a stage was fronted by banner portraits of each of the nine victims and backed by the flags of many countries.

President Barack Obama had eulogized the victims of the rampage at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including its slain minister and state Senator Clementa Pinckney, in the same arena last year.

Hymns were led by a 100-member choir and a minister prayed for the Charleston and Orlando victims, as well as for the soul of the accused church shooter, Dylann Roof.

Roof, 22, could face the death penalty on state murder charges and federal hate crime charges. Roof is white, while his victims were African American and the federal indictment against him said he acted out of racism.

Charleston State Senator Marlon Kimpson urged lawmakers to address gun control after so much bloodshed.

“He (Roof) was a home-grown terrorist filled with hate right here in South Carolina,” Kimpson told the congregation.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley showed the programs from nine funeral she has kept since last summer, and spoke about faith and each victim. She recalled how they welcomed Roof and prayed with him for an hour before they were killed.

“Tywanza Sanders stood in front of his 87-year-old aunt and looked the murderer in the eye and said, ‘You don’t have to do this. We mean you no harm,'” Haley said. “I will always talk about these people who changed my life.”

As well as the memorial, events including Bible study sessions, a prayer breakfast and tree plantings will take place around Charleston. The church also will open its doors to religious leaders and elected officials from around the nation on Friday afternoon.

The church has had many visitors in the past year, Emanuel’s new pastor, the Reverend Dr. Betty Deas Clark, told Reuters during a recent Bible study meeting in the room where the massacre took place.

“I believe we’re moving forward … Forgiveness is the message of the hour,” Clark said.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Trott)

Two Washington state church fires possible arsen

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Authorities in southwest Washington were investigating on Thursday fires at two churches they believe were deliberately lit over the past two days and put places of worship in the area on high alert, police said.

The suspicious fires occurred at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Vancouver, Washington, early Wednesday morning and at the Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene on Thursday morning, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Authorities “are investigating these two incidents as intentional acts of arson,” the sheriff’s office said.

The Clark County Fire Department said authorities had yet to determine whether the two acts of suspected arson were committed by the same person.

Sheriff Chuck Atkins “is asking that all churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship, remain vigilant,” the sheriff’s department said.

Washington state media reported that the fire at the First Congregational United Church of Christ caused $2 million in damage. The fire at the Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene was set when an object was thrown through a window and was quickly doused by the church’s sprinkler system, media reported.

No possible motive was known yet, the sheriff said.

Vancouver, Washington, is a community of 160,000 people about 10 miles (15 km) north of Portland, Oregon.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Paul Tait)

California Man Offers Free Gun Safety Classes to Church Personnel

A Northern California man is reportedly offering free gun safety classes to religious leaders.

Geof Peabody, who owns a gun range in Placerville, near Sacramento, told CBS News that he’s provided the training to some 500 ministers and church security teams over the past eight years.

“Safe and saved,” Peabody told CBS News. “We can accomplish both with the right training.”

Sacramento television station KOVR also covered Peabody’s story, reporting that the owner saw “a dramatic increase” in interest in recent months. Peabody told KOVR a recent class attracted nine different churches, who collectively sent about 25 students to learn introductory training.

The classes cover more than firing weapons. Peabody told KOVR he also teaches his clients certain defense techniques, which can be used to stop someone else from shooting.

The news comes at a time when America is feeling particularly jittery.

A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll, conducted in the wake of the San Bernardino mass shootings, found that 47 percent of Americans believe they or someone in their family will be the victim of a terrorist attack. And data available on Google’s website indicates that more Americans have performed searches for concealed carry permits, which allow people to carry hidden handguns in public, this month than they have at any other point in the past 11 years.

CBS News reported Peabody’s graduates can carry concealed weapons, and many of them bring their guns to church. In addition to San Bernardino, another incident is undoubtedly fresh in the minds of some of the church personnel who receive training from Peabody. Nine people were killed when a gunman opened fire at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, back in June.

But there is conflicting evidence on whether concealed carry permits actually curb gun violence, particularly in chaotic active-shooter situations like those in San Bernardino and Charleston, as well as conflicting ideologies about whether firearms belong in church under any circumstance.

Woman Brings “The Power of Pies” to Charleston Church Targeted by Gunman

A Minnesota woman has taken what she calls “something sweeter than pie” to the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, site of a shooting during a Bible study that left 9 people dead: Love.

Rose McGee traveled over 1,000 miles from her home in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota to bring hand made “comfort pies” to the Bible Study that resumed at the historic church after the deadly attack in June.

“As far as I am concerned, it’s the sacred dessert of black culture, a comfort sweet potato pie, which means when you have this, it just soothes the soul,” said McGee.

“I actually was just sitting in my living room watching television as everybody else was and became very frustrated, about everything and decided to get up, went into the kitchen and started making pies.”

McGee, who grew up in Tennessee, said the pies are a recipe handed down through her family beginning with her great-grandmother.

McGee has donated pies to other communities that have faced tragedy over the years and found that the pies could bring healing and promote community.

McGee admitted being a little nervous about sending her pies to the Charleston church.

“I’m really holding my breath and hoping the people of Charleston will like this pie,” said McGee. “Because South Carolina is a place where sweet potato pies are done right.”

“All I can say it’s amazing what happens when people come together,” added McGee.

China Crackdown on Crosses Draws Backlash

“Aren’t you ashamed of what you have done?” a crying woman screamed at the security guards keeping the parishioners of Lower Dafei Catholic Church from protecting their church’s cross.

The woman was part of a dozen Chinese Catholics who tried to stop the government from cutting the cross off the top of their building.

“We have violated no law. We do not oppose the government,” said the parishioner, who gave his name only as Chen for fear of retaliation from authorities. “We have been good, law-abiding citizens.”

Tu Shouzhe told ABC News about the government ripping the cross from his church’s building.

“It was a surprise attack. We did not let them in, but they broke in by cutting off the lock. We demanded paperwork, but they showed us none. They cordoned us away from the church,” Tu said. “They had 60-70 people. We had just about a dozen or so. Everyone was crying. Our hearts ached. We felt powerless to resist, and only prayed and sang hymns.”

Chinese Christians are rising up against the government’s actions to the level that even some of the “official” churches are starting to rebel.  The Christian Associations in the nation – which was designed to ensure the Communist Party’s control over churches – has said that the government’s actions are out of line.  They warned the action could turn the faithful into “enemies of the party.”

“The crackdown has alienated the Christians in China, who are otherwise law-abiding citizens,” Yang Fenggang, an expert on China’s religions at Purdue University, told the Associated Press.

Catholics in China Protest Cross Removals By Government

Christians in China have had enough of the government’s campaign to eradicate the cross from the country.

“Each time they take a cross down, we will put more up,” one church leader told the Guardian at a protest on Friday. “We are even considering making flags and clothes with cross patterns. We will make the cross flourish throughout China.”

The activists say that the Chinese government has ripped down 1,200 crosses in the last two years with an increase in the amount of crosses torn down in the last few weeks.  The focus has been in the Zhejiang province where Christian churches have been flourishing.

Zhejiang has over 300,000 Catholics and one million Protestants between the “official” government churches and underground churches.

“Christianity has grown so fast that Christians outnumber Communist Party members. The whole purpose of this is to control the ‘overheated’ growth of Christianity. They are nervous not just about Christianity but of any organized civil group,” Bob Fu, president of Texas-based non-profit China Aid, told Christianity Today.

In addition to the stripping of crosses from church buildings, many churches have been completely destroyed by the government and local officials.