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Copts flee North Sinai desperate for sanctuary Open in fullscreen

Jo Schietti

Copts flee North Sinai desperate for sanctuary

Hundreds of Coptic Christians have left Sinai after a string of attacks [AFP]

Date of publication: 6 March, 2017

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Egyptian Copts are flocking to Ismailia and beyond to escape the latest spate of killings of Christians by militants, but their grievances are falling on deaf ears.

Hundreds of Egyptian Copts are flocking to Ismailia and beyond to escape the latest spate of killings of Christians by militants in North Sinai. Their security grievances have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Eight Copts have been killed in separate attacks in the north of Sinai in just one month, three of them murdered just a week ago.

More than 140 families - nearly 550 Egyptian Copts - have fled the nearby city of Ismailiya, according to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Exact numbers are hard to obtain as Sinai's Copts continue to flee violence in the town of El-Arish.

"Violent attacks against Christians are on the rise. They have become an easy target," noted Ishaq Ibrahim, religious freedoms researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

Although it is unclear how many Coptic Christians live in the North Sinai region, researchers claim that the area's Christian population was close to 4,000 before the sudden displacement of families following increased attacks and threats by IS-affiliated militants.

The latest in a string of sectarian attacks came after an IS-linked group released a video last week, threatening further attacks on Egypt's Christian minority. In the video, the group also claimed responsibility for last December's bomb explosion in a chapel beside Cairo's Coptic cathedral that left more than 25 dead and dozens injured.

A possible intent of Sinai-based jihadists, the researcher hinted, is to radicalise the northern region and make it Christians-free amid growing extremism

Terrorise and conquer

Ibrahim, whose work currently focuses on the plight of Sinai's Christians, suggested that, by killing and terrorising Copts, militants want to send a message to the state that they are making some kind of "progress" in the Sinai Peninsula - where Egyptian armed forces are battling an ongoing insurgency.

[Click on map to enlarge]

Another possible intent of the Sinai-based jihadists, the researcher hinted, is to radicalise the northern region and make it Christian-free amid growing extremism.

Since the ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in the 2013 coup, North Sinai has been caught in the crossfire between the army and local armed militants.

The majority of the Islamist militant attacks have been carried out by Wilayat Sinai (known previously as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis), a group that has officially pledged allegiance to IS. A state of emergency has been in place in some parts of North Sinai since August 2013.

"The situation of Sinai's Copts is very miserable, their lives are in real danger, but the authorities don't have a plan to protect them," said George Ishak, a politician and activist, after traveling back from Ismailiya.

Several families who are considered to be original residents of El-Arish face problems in finding new homes. Others have taken refuge in their original governorates, in Assiut, Cairo and Alexandria, and are staying with their relatives.

Violence against Christians is not new to Egypt

History of violence

Violence against Christians is not new to Egypt. In July of last year, Father Rafael Moussa of the Mar Girgis Church in Al-Arish was gunned down by IS-affiliated militants.

The local rights group EIPR reported in August 2016 that in the first eight months of 2016, ten incidents of sectarian violence had taken place in the Minya governorate alone, an area of Upper Egypt with a large Christian community.

Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 90 million population, have often been targeted by Islamists in recent years.

In Ismailiya, North Sinai's neighbouring province, the Anglican, Coptic Orthodox and Evangelical churches are temporarily housing and providing support to dozens of displaced families.

Many of Ismailiya's residents have also offered help, donating food, blankets and clothes.

"We're supporting with sheltering and aid through the church and donations," said Nadine Saudi, who is finding places for Coptic families in youth hostels across Ismailia.

"These people are very saddened and psychologically hurt."

She said Copts witnessed neighbours in El-Arish being killed, their valuables stolen, homeowners either shot dead or burnt alive with their homes set ablaze.

Ishak, a member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), a quasi-state body, met with other families in Alexandria last Monday.

"Some told me they saw militants in El-Arish marking Christian houses with cross signs as a warning for them to leave or die," the NCHR delegate reported.

"Besides killing Coptic residents in broad daylight, militants now even go chasing and killing them inside their houses," added Ibrahim, who was in Ismailiya last Sunday to visit the families from Al-Arish.

He heard many complaining over the insecurity in Sinai and the state's inability to guarantee their protection. Fathers are preoccupied with how to feed their children, being away from their small businesses back home. Mothers are struggling to make sure their children can return to school.

The government is not helping so far, there's no plan to enable the return of the displaced, and no security guarantees for the civilians in the area

State of crisis

"These families are scared to go back home and worried about their future. They had to leave their properties, jobs, everything behind. They just want a safe place to live in and work," the EIPR's freedom of belief officer added.

A lot of the Christians here are angry at receiving repeated unrealistic reassurances by the state that the situation is safe - while their demands are being ignored.

Earlier this week, Egyptian leftist parties and rights groups issued a statement calling on the government to secure those Sinai Christians, while denouncing "a total absence of security" in the area.

Although Egyptian President Sisi ordered the government to take "all necessary measures" to help resettle Christians who had fled their homes in North Sinai, it remains unclear how state institutions will help. Nor it is clear what the military and police forces will do to ensure protection of the Christians who have not left Sinai.

"The government is not helping so far, there's no plan to enable the return of the displaced, and no security guarantees for the civilians in the area," Saudi said.

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