CAIRO -- At least 9 people, including eight Coptic Christians, were killed in a shootout outside a church and at a nearby store owned by a Christian in a Cairo suburb, Egypt's Health Ministry said Friday. It was the latest attack targeting the majority Muslim country's embattled Christian minority.
The attack outside the Coptic Church of Mar Mina left at least five others wounded, including two critically, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said.
The gunman was also killed, along with at least one police officer, officials said.
The shootout took place when a gunman on a motorcycle tried to break through the security cordon set up outside the church, said the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police. An explosive device was in the assailant's possession when arrested, it added.
The attack comes 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.
A video circulating on social media after Friday's attack apparently shows the gunman lying on the ground with his face covered in blood. Authorities have closed off the area around the church.
The Interior Ministry said the assailant had earlier opened fire at a nearby store.
The shootout outside the church and at the store killed a total of eight people and a policeman, the ministry said. The assailant was wounded in the gunfire exchange before his arrest, said the statement, which did not clarify whether he later died.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of Islamic militants who have for years battled security forces in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in an insurgency now led by a local affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. It is centered 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 to contain an insurgency that is growing in sophistication and brutality. It 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 defense 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 shooting broke out. He saw people running and some taking cover from the gunfire in a nearby restaurant.
Another witness, 40-year-old Raouth Atta, was praying inside the church when the violence broke out. "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 able to leave she saw blood everywhere.
"We kept praying," said the Father Boules, who was teaching a Sunday school class - which take place during weekends on Fridays and Saturdays - 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 ISIS affiliate has claimed all the bombings targeting Christians.
Christians make up about 10 percent 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.
© 2018 Associated Press