By Essam Fadl
CAIRO: An off-duty, low-ranking policeman shot one Christian dead on Tuesday, injuring five of his family members in a shooting inside a train in Samalout city, Minya.
The shooter was arrested at his residence, according to the Ministry of Interior. He was remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigations. The prosecution is accusing Amer Ashour Abdel-Zaher of premeditated murder and attempted murder among other charges.
In a statement issued after the accident, the Ministry of Interior said that Abdel-Zaher boarded train number 979 from Assiut to Cairo, and shot the Christian family during the train stop in Samalout using his gun.
The shooting left Fathy Saed Abeid, 71, dead, injured his wife Emily Hanna Takla, 61, Sabah Senot Soliman, 57, Marian Nabil Zaki, 23, Magy Nabil Zaki, 26, and Ihab Ashraf Kamal, 26.
Egyptian authorities played down a sectarian motive for the attack. But conflicting accounts and explanations were provided by officials and eyewitnesses.
A security official said the suspect, who was arrested after the shooting, said in questioning that he had felt “irritated and frustrated” because he was short on money. He did not say he specifically targeted Christians.
Minya governor Ahmed Diaa Al-Din denied that the attacker was religiously motivated.
“It has to do with his personal mental state. It had nothing to do with the religion of his victims,” he told AFP. “He boarded the train suddenly and emptied his pistol.”
He said that the man tried to shoot two Muslims who wrestled with him but he had run out of ammunition.
While reasons of the attack are not yet revealed, Coptic witnesses told Daily News Egypt that the shooter boarded the train, listened to the Coptic family chatting, took out his gun and started shooting and shouted “Allahu Akbar.”
Deputy of Samalout Archbishopric Bishop Moussa told Daily News Egypt that he does not know the reason behind the attack. “It is very strange that the victims are members of one Christian family that have no prior relationship with the shooter.”
The shooting is likely to stoke tensions in the Muslim majority country, where Christians protested for several days after the Jan. 1 bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed up to 23 people — the deadliest attack on Christians in years.
Christians make up a tenth of Egypt’s 80 million people and have long complained of unfair treatment. They have accused the government of not doing enough to protect them.
Ministry of Health spokesperson Abdel-Rahman Shahin said that the injured were first sent to Samalout Hospital and then to the Good Shepard Hospital at their families’ requests. The body of the dead was sent to Samalout Hospital.
Minya and Abo-Kurkas Archbishoprics issued a statement saying that Takla underwent a surgery to remove her left kidney and the spleen and a doubled tube installation. Sabah Senot Soliman was injured in the liver and underwent a surgery to install a tube in the chest. The rest sustained light injuries.
Soliman and Takla were airlifted to a Cairo hospital.
Tens of Copts protested on Tuesday night in front of Samalout Hospital, chanting slogans condemning the shooting. Protestors clashed with security forces who used teargas canisters to disperse the crowds.
Hospital manager Dr. Mariam Salah told Daily News Egypt five teargas canisters were fired inside the hospital. The staff also found seven bullet shells inside. Daily News Egypt reporters at the scene said they experienced irritation in the eyes in some of the hospital rooms on Wednesday morning.
Pope Shenouda, who traveled to Cleveland Hospital in US for a medical check up, is following up with the latest developments of the attacks. Sources inside the church said that the Pope requested reports from his assistants. –Additional reporting by Jon Jensen and Mohamed Effat for Daily News Egypt and agencies.