EGYPT – Copts flee Sinai after deadly IS attacks
Several hundred Coptic Christians have fled their homes in North Sinai province where they have lived for generations following a series of murders in recent weeks by suspected Islamist militants. Since the end of January at least seven Christians have been attacked and killed in the provincial capital, El Arish – five were shot in the street, one was beheaded and one burnt to death. The displaced Christians said they were very scared and apprehensive as they “are being targeted in an ugly way”.
George Makeen of Christian satellite network SAT-7 said many Christians in Sinai have reported receiving threats from radicals by mobile phone. Other Christians received death threats online. Increasingly those threats ‘have been translated into action’. Makeen says that “the police themselves are afraid and don’t know what to do. So the only option is for people to flee their homes.”
Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, said “ We’re seeing an increase in targeted attacks against the Christian community, they are no longer sporadic.” He added that “lists of churches and individuals have been released…to be targeted by those who believe in the cause.” A local IS affiliated group has just released a video vowing to step up attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority, which it described “infidels” empowering the West against Muslims.
Bishop Angaelos said: “This isn’t a hypothetical situation. People are making decisions not just about the wellbeing, but the safety and security of their families.” He insisted that “This doesn’t change the overall resilience we’ve seen in the Coptic community. They’ve been facing attacks for months now, almost on a daily basis.”
Angaelos said that this was the ‘same principle’ of displacement that forced Christians to flee Mosul in Iraq, albeit on a smaller scale at the moment. It remains unclear what the long term situation will be, though he expects intensified attacks on wider targets.
Angaelos emphasised the attacks of radical Islamists have not changed the Christian relationship with Muslims at large, and that there has been an ‘outpouring of sentiment from the wider Muslim community, assuring Christians that not all Muslims are like that’.
More than 150 families have sought refuge in the Suez Canal city of Ismaliya, 125 miles west of El-Arish, with Catholic and Protestant churches who are providing for the needs of those now without homes. Nabil Shukrallah, deacon of the Evangelical Church, said about 250 Christians were now in his church. “They’ve come running with their children. It’s a very difficult situation. We’re expecting 50 or 60 more,” he stated.
The Coptic Church is actively supporting those who have been displaced. The Coptic community is providing financial assistance, accommodation and plans to set up schooling and university programmes for those who have now been deprived of their education.
The Coptic Church condemned the attacks, saying they were aimed at “dividing” Egyptians. The Egyptian Council of Churches issued a statement, calling the refugee crisis a ‘violation of the Egyptian constitution and the basic rights of citizenship’.
It added: ‘We support with all our power the families of the victims and those who were forcibly displaced and their belongings stolen. We trust that the government is capable of handling this crisis and we look forward to the return of those displaced to their homes and work as soon as possible and towards the management of their needs to end their suffering as soon as possible.’
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has said that those forced to flee would still be paid despite having to leave their places of work and that the government is working to return the displaced to their homes.
Egypt has seen a wave of attacks by militants since 2013 when the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi, an elected leader who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, and launched a crackdown against Islamists. Some of Morsi’s supporters blamed Christians for supporting the overthrow.
In recent years the Copts – who make up about 10% of the country’s 90 million population – have often been targeted by Islamist militants. Most attacks have been focused on the Sinai peninsula, where an IS-linked jihadist group is active. However, sectarian conflict is not uncommon in other parts of Egypt. Cairo has also suffered a string of attacks in the past two years, including the bombing of a Coptic cathedral last December which killed 25 Christians. Almost 500 incidents have been recorded nationwide since mid-2012, including attacks on homes and churches as well as violence against individuals.