A Surrey church congregation of about 250 families is heartbroken after a “suspicious” fire early Monday morning destroyed their St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Whalley.
“We are still in a state of shock, mourning,” Father Bisenty Gerges said Tuesday. “It’s unpredictable what the future will be. I think we will rent a place.”
The priest said their bishop has come to Surrey from Mississauga to help. “From there we can start.”
Meantime, a GoFundMe fundraising campaign raised $8,100 during its first day, toward helping rebuild the church.
Gerges stressed he is not pointing figures at who might be responsible. “We leave the investigations to the authorities, we trust them,” he said. “It is not for us to say, we leave it to the RCMP and the investigators. It’s not up to me.”
The fire erupted at the church, at 13905 108th Avenue, on July 19. The Surrey RCMP was called to the scene at 3:17 a.m. Nobody was injured as the church was empty at the time. It happened five days after an attempted arson at the church, in which police say video surveillance footage confirms a woman lit “items” on fire at the door.
“She entered from the gate outside, which is unlocked. We reported that to the police and they have the video,” Gerges said.
The suspect is described as Caucasian, five feet seven inches tall and heavy-set with dark hair. The woman was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, a black tank top, black tights with a flower print, and black flip flops. Investigators are asking anyone with information related to either of these investigations to contact the Surrey RCMP (604-599-0502) or Crime Stoppers (www.solvecrime.ca, 1-800-222-TIPS).
Surrey RCMP Sergeant Elenore Sturko said Tuesday police have no evidence connecting the woman to the second fire.
“We’re saying at this time there is no evidence connecting either of these incidents, so the fire that destroyed the church on the 19th and the arson to those sort-of flowers on the front door, they’re both suspicious events and concerning, but at this time there is no evidence that they’re connected but we do want to find out the identity of that woman who lit that fire on the 14th.”
“There is no evidence at this time that links this fire at the church to any other incidents throughout the city or across the province but we’ll be doing a full investigation and we’ll allow the evidence to lead us in the proper direction.”
Asked if police are keeping an eye on nearby Saint Mary Coptic Church, Sturko replied that because other churches have been set on fire across B.C., police have been reaching out to churches “to talk to the about concerns they might have.
“We’re also doing extra patrols around the area of churches and gurdwaras and other places of worship in the community,” she said. “We had some graffiti targeting the Muslim community, so we’ve also been doing extra patrols and reaching out and doing work with those community members as well because it’s important to us that people in the community can feel safe both in the community and in their places of worship.”
Surrey Fire Chief Larry Thomas noted at press time that investigators had a lot of ground to cover while trying to discover what caused the fire as the church was a “pretty big building.”
“They’re probably trying to recover the video recording system that was on site if it’s not destroyed totally and see if they can get any evidence off that, trying to confirm what they may or may not suspect,” Thomas said. “There’s not lots left there, so it’s pretty hard, pretty challenging. We’ll see.”
Nancy Yacoub, a member of St. George’s since she emigrated to Canada from Egypt in 1982, was among about 200 mourners who attended a vigil at the smouldering ruin on Monday night. “My heart was so broken,” she said.
In 2011, Mounties kept vigil over Whalley’s two Coptic Orthodox churches – St. George and Saint Mary – after a deadly terrorist attack against their church in Alexandria, Egypt, and subsequent threats made here in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Surrey’s churches did not receive any threats but the Surrey RCMP nevertheless increased its presence around them.
Yacoub said Monday’s fire is bringing back bad memories from Egypt. “It’s a shock.
“It’s definitely hate,” she said, “nothing more than hate, someone who is extremely hateful.”
She said she’s disappointed with politicians who haven’t spoken out against the fire. “I think being quiet or being silent is encouraging this hate to come out, because nobody is blaming this hate, nobody is saying ‘stop it.’”
“I believe it’s politics. Bad politics are taking it’s toll on us, everybody, everyone.”
Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum told the Now-Leader on Tuesday he was meeting with police and city bylaws staff “to go over the situation up there, it’s a terrible situation and especially when there appears to have been an attempt to do it a week before.
“It’s a serious situation and we need to deal with it to see whether we can get it corrected,” he said. “It’s a very serious thing. When I was phoned about it, when the fire, soon after it got started in the morning, three in the morning or something, I immediately felt it was a very serious situation and so we need to work real hard, all our public safety people.
“We need to address the situation very quickly.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church is an ancient church founded on the teachings of Saint Mark, who brought Christianity to Egypt during Nero’s reign in the first century A.D. There are more than 50,000 Coptic Orthodox Christians throughout Canada, with 74 priests serving some 40 churches.
Coptic church Pope Tawadros II in September 2014, on his first papal visit to Canada, performed the liturgy at St. George and also visited Saint Mary before attending a special luncheon at the Sheraton hotel in Guildford.
– with file from Tom Zillich