Dozens of families gathered around the Evangelical Church in the Egyptian port city of Ismailia, laden with suitcases that carried nothing but a fraction of their belongings. Others gathered around the youth center with nothing but their children and the clothes on their backs. There they waited for shelter, after more than 20 hours of fear and apprehension.
This describes the scene in Ismailia, 80 kilometers northeast of Cairo, after nearly 55 displaced Coptic Christian families arrived there, having escaped from North Sinai. Families continue to pour into the city, according to sources from the church.
‘Infidels Among Believers’
The displacement of Copts from Al-Arish town in North Sinai began after seven Copts were killed by unknown armed assailants over the previous three weeks. The most recent incident occurred last Thursday, in which a Copt was killed inside his home in front of his family in Al-Arish. His family escaped before the perpetrators could set fire to their home.
“We are living as though we are infidels among believers,” says Michael*, one of the displaced copts from North Sinai, describing their situation. “After the last killing, many of my family members, friends, and even Armed Forces and police officers warned me about the current situation, advising me to leave the town due to the gravity of the events.”
“I have lived in Al-Arish for over 17 years. I never felt targeted or that I was in danger until 2012, when deposed president Mohamed Morsy was in office. Since then, incidents involving the killing of Copts have been on the rise, as well as threats and the burning of churches,” he continues.
Michael, who works in a small commercial venture, goes on to say, “My work necessitates working with all segments in the town, but Copts are constantly under scrutiny, along with their activities and their dealings with the army and police. Those who are deemed to have friendly dealings with the army and the police are targeted by Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] and killed.”
Having arrived in Ismailia on the evening of Friday, February 24, Michael says that his family evacuated from the town, and even those who have not left are on their way out, leaving behind their homes, work, and everything they own in fear for their lives.
Extremists displace Copts with the blessing of the state, which only wishes to resort to easy solutions, says Mina Thabet
Many of the displaced Copts in Egypt suffer from trauma, having seen their family members killed before their own eyes
He adds that the Evangelical Church and the Governorate of Ismailia are working on providing the displaced families with whatever means for subsistence are available. However, the fleeing Copts outnumber the available resources and shelter, and additional food, subsistence, and blankets are in dire need.
Regarding the most recent killing incident, Michael says, “I had left work and gone home when I heard the sound of a gun being fired. I didn’t leave my home until one of my friends had secured a way out of the town and to Ismailia.” He added that the displacement of Copts had begun a month earlier, with the first killing incident at the end of January. Numerous families left their homes and went to Ismailia, fearing the situation. Among them were Michael’s wife and children.
The Displacement of Copts
According to numbers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), eight Copts were killed in North Sinai in a series of incidents that began on January 30 and continues until now.
Both the Evangelical and Orthodox churches both issued statements condemning the recent events in North Sinai, in which they stated that two of the Copts who were killed were burned to death.
Moreover, Islamic State issued a 20-minute recording last Sunday threatening the Coptic residents of more attacks. The recording also depicted the final message from a purported suicide bomber who was claimed to be the perpetrator behind the bombing of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Cairo, in which 29 were killed last December. The self-proclaimed Islamic State in Egypt called last week for the killing of what it referred to as the “Crusaders in Egypt”.
In the recent past, similar killings of Coptic citizens were witnessed across a number of governorates in Egypt, including that of a purported liquor store owner in Alexandria, who was slaughtered in front of his son. Security sources confirmed at the time that the death was the result of a personal altercation and not for sectarian reasons. Moreover, in Menoufiya, a Coptic man and his wife were also killed, while the security apparatus has failed to elucidate on the event until now.
Mina Thabet, a researcher focused on minorities and vulnerable groups at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), tells Raseef22 that it is difficult to separate the recent killing incidents in Alexandria and Menoufiya from the current events in Al-Arish. He noted that members of extremist groups have a larger plan to change the demographic nature of Egypt’s Copts by moving them from their places of resident and evicting the Christian presence from certain areas of Egypt. He added that this was prevalent in previous times in Upper Egypt, through the contrivance of issues that would predominantly be resolved informally without state involvement, often leading to the displacement of Copts from their homes.
“They all have the same values that are followed at varying degrees; that is, to displace Copts with the blessing of the state which resorts to easy solutions by moving the afflicted and displacing them, rather than resolving the issue itself. The same thing is happening in Sinai now,” Thabet adds.
He further affirms that the recent events in Al-Arish are not the first of their kind, the only difference being that this time the Copts were directly and explicitly targeted in their homes and at work. Moreover, despite the fact that the attacks began almost a month ago, the displacement is still limited, as many families simply do not have other options.
Samir* is another Copt who was displaced with his family from North Sinai after one of his relatives was killed. There is a tremble of fear and rage in his voice as he says, “The situation in Sinai is gruesome; we are being killed in broad daylight. There are papers handed out with our names on them, calling on people to target and kill us.”
“The state of terror and the killing of Copts in Sinai have been ongoing for a long time. The only development is that the number of takfiris has increased, and in turn so has the number of victims,” he adds.
Fady Sobhy, the coordinator of the Evangelical Church in Ismailia, comments on the current situation, telling Raseef22: “There are 50 families displaced from North Sinai to Ismailia now, and we await more to come. We provide them with housing and subsistence, as well as psychological support through relief teams from the church.”
“Most of them suffer from psychological trauma and are in a state of extreme fear due to witnessing their family members being killed before their own eyes,” he adds.
About 400 Coptic families live in North Sinai, according to unofficial sources. There is no proper documentation of the killing incidents and the targeting of Copts prior to 2012, when former president Mohamed Morsi assumed office.
Isaac Ibrahim, a researcher and the coordinator of Freedom of Religion and Belief at the EIPR, tells Raseef22 that “the first instance of displacement was in Rafah, after the targeting and assault of several Copts, including two priests. Killing incidents occurred, although somewhat infrequently.”
Ibrahim attributes the attacks on Copts to the notion that they are viewed as easy targets, as the majority of them work in the government or in commercial jobs, and as they are not Bedouins, they do not have families or tribes to protect them. He points to the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens, thereby placing the responsibility for the recent string of killings squarely on the government’s shoulders. He further notes that it is crucial that the state offers protection to the Coptic families from terrorism.
According to unofficial sources, among the most prominent cases of the targeting of Copts in North Sinai over the recent years was the enforced displacement of dozens of Coptic families in September 2012, following attacks by masked assailants on the homes and businesses of Copts. At the time, a warning notice was handed out giving the Copts of Rafah 48 hours to evacuate the town.
The was followed by the targeting of religious clerics and Coptic citizens in a series of disparate incidents, the most notable being the shooting of Reverend Mina Aboud in July 2013 by unknown assailants. Another prominent incident was the killing of Reverent Rafa’eel Moussa in June 2016, for which “Sinai Province” claimed responsibility.
Moreover, Copts have been targeted intermittently over the past years, including that of the electronics salesman Magdy Lam’ie, who was found murdered in Sheikh Zuwayed in November 2013.