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Egypt imam vows to return to massacre mosque to finish sermon

Egyptians carry victims on stretchers following an attack on the Rawda mosque in the Sinai on November 24, 2017. AFP Photo

Al-Husayniyah, Egypt | AFP | The young Egyptian imam who survived the Sinai mosque massacre that killed 305 people vowed Sunday from his hospital bed to go back and resume the sermon he never finished.

Mohammed Abdel Fattah, 26, was delivering the Friday sermon at the North Sinai Rawda mosque when blasts erupted.

“I was only two minutes into my sermon when I heard two explosions outside the mosque, and then I saw worshippers running in horror,” he said.

“Then people entered the mosque and began firing at everyone who was still standing,” the preacher said from his hospital bed in the Nile Delta town of Al-Husayniya.

Abdel Fattah — who has been imam for two years at the Rawda mosque frequented by Sufis — said his sermon on that tragic day was about “Mohammed, the prophet of humanity”.

The imam fell from the raised minbar, or pulpit, when the attack broke out and was trampled by worshippers who tried to flee the carnage.

And when he hit the ground, people stepped over him, before the bodies of those shot by the attackers piled on top of him, pinning him down and preventing him from lifting his head to see what was going on.

“As soon as the shooting started I fell. I didn’t see or feel anything except for the two or three bloodied bodies that fell on top of me,” he said.

Among the first casualties was 62-year-old Fathy Ismail, the mosque’s muezzin who called the faithful to prayer.

Authorities said up to 30 militants in camouflage clothing and flying the black banner of the Islamic State group surrounded the mosque and opened fire on the faithful during the main weekly prayers.

Abdel Fattah suffered bruising, but his health appears to be improving and he hopes to be back on his feet to continue the sermon that was brutally interrupted.

“If my health allows it, I will return next Friday week (to Rawda mosque) and finish my sermon,” he said.

– ‘Blessed miracle’ –

A frame bearing Koranic verses hangs above his hospital bed.

The imam said it was a gift he received from a visiting delegation of Coptic Christians the day after Friday’s attack.

The attack is thought to have been carried out by the jihadist Islamic State group because the mosque is associated with followers of the mystical Sufi branch of Sunni Islam.

IS has branded Sufis heretics for seeking the intercession of saints.

“About a year ago, we heard rumours concerning threats against people who organise celebrations for the birth of Prophet Mohammed,” Abdel Fattah said on Sunday.

The imam declined to say whether he, himself, belonged to the Sufi community.

“I am a servant of God and his Prophet,” he said when asked about his faith.

Five members of his family were by his bedside, including his 65-year-old father Abdel Fattah Mahmoud, a retired sheikh from Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest institution of Sunni Islam.

Mahmoud said he had tried to persuade his son from going to work in North Sinai, a restive region, but then he recalled a Koranic verse that says no one will die unless it is God’s will.

Egypt’s North Sinai-based IS branch has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, as well as civilians accused of working with the authorities, since the July 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

“Not only is Sufism under threat, but all of Islam, and the whole of the Arab region is under threat,” said Mahmoud.

His son’s survival “is a blessed miracle”, he added.

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