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By Vancouver Sun –

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Surrey RCMP said it is being treated as ‘suspicious’ 

Surrey’s St. George Coptic Orthodox Church was destroyed by an early-morning fire Monday. PHOTO BY SHANE MACKICHAN /Shane MacKichan

A congregation and community are in shock after an early-morning fire destroyed Surrey’s St. George Coptic Orthodox Church on Monday. The blaze broke out around 3:30 a.m. at the church located at 13905 108 Ave in the Whalley neighbourhood.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Surrey RCMP said it is being treated as “suspicious.” The St. George Coptic Orthodox Church was also the target of an attempted arson just last Wednesday, although authorities do not know if the two incidents are connected.

In the first arson attempt, surveillance video showed that at approximately 2:33 a.m. on July 14, a woman lit items on fire at the door of the church before leaving the area.

In a statement, Bishop Mina of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Mississauga, Vancouver and Western Canada expressed “immense sadness and pain” at the loss of the church, but added, “We will not be deterred and we will rebuild.”

He called on Premier John Horgan and the authorities to expedite the investigation, and said, “The timing of this fire … raises many questions about what the authorities did to protect our church, especially considering the attempt on the same church this past Wednesday.”

Congregation member Nancy Khalil said she sobbed when her mother called her with the news this morning.

“The loss is heartbreaking, disappointing and devastating for the congregation and the community,” said Khalil, whose family helped build the sanctuary which was destroyed, along with dozens of “priceless” handpainted icons.

Khalil expressed disappointment that neither provincial nor federal leaders had yet spoken out about the fire. “It hurts to see no word from the government. I’m very, very much hoping for at least a statement from the premier to condemn what is happening.”

“We are the Copts, which is the Indigenous group of Egypt,” said Khalil, whose family immigrated to Canada some 30 years ago. “We love the community and the country we live in.”

The majority of Copts are Orthodox Christians, and make up the largest ethno-religious minority in Egypt, a country that is ranked No. 16 on the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List of nations for its treatment of Christians.

Only one wall remains standing following Monday morning’s fire. 

The church in Surrey was more than just a place of worship, said Khalil. “This was our home. We go there for more than just a service, we go two to four times a week. We got married there, our children grew up there.”

In 1998, Pope Shenouda III visited the church to consecrate its altar, and in September, 2014, Pope Tawadros II also visited to bless the icons, two moments that were especially meaningful to Khalil.

The congregation served some 400 to 500 families and was involved in many community outreach programs, including Hunger For Hope, which provided sandwiches and dinners to the homeless.

The building also housed the Junior Einsteins Academy, a licensed daycare that had 65 children aged two to five enrolled. Daycare owner Britiney Dhillon said she has been working with licensing officers and community members to to find alternate arrangements for the kids.

“The loss is overwhelming,” said daycare mom Michelle Clark, whose daughter has been enrolled since 2017. “The only wall that is still standing is the exterior part of the gym, where the daycare had space, and where there was Sunday School on weekends.”

Anyone with information about Monday morning’s fire, or the arson attempt on July 14, should contact authorities.

The suspect in the July 14 attempt is described as a Caucasian woman, 5’7” tall, with a heavy-set build, and dark hair. She was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, a black tank top, black tights with a flower print, and black flip flops.

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