By Declan Walsh, Nour Youssef – New York Times –
Dozens of Egyptian Christian families fled their homes in the northern Sinai Peninsula on Friday, driven by a targeted campaign of Islamist violence that has killed at least seven people in recent weeks.
People flooded into a church compound in the city of Ismailia, on the Suez Canal. Many had fled hurriedly with little more than their clothes and their children. Their flight had been prompted by the release of an Islamic State video on Sunday that vowed to step up attacks on the embattled Christian minority in Sinai.
The video was followed, in recent days, by a series of attacks by gunmen in El Arish, the main town in northern Sinai. On Thursday, a plumber in the city was shot dead in front of his wife and children at their home, according to aid workers and Christian leaders.
A day earlier, gunmen killed another man before his pregnant wife, then calmly drank a bottle of Pepsi before taking off, witnesses told aid workers in Ismailia.
“They want to send a message that nobody is safe,” said Mina Thabet, who works with the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms and who helped with the emergency effort in Ismailia.
The killings represent an escalation of a campaign announced by the Islamic State in December, when a suicide bomber struck a prominent Cairo church during Sunday Mass, killing about 30 people. The group says it wants to wage sectarian war in Egypt, much as it has already done in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Coptic Christians in Egypt, who account for about 10 percent of the country’s population, are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Although they have been subjected to increasing violence in recent years, the Islamic State campaign is an alarming turn.
“As the Islamic State comes under pressure in Iraq and Syria, it has to show movement on other fronts,” said Zack Gold, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs research organization. “One of them is to demonstrate that it is still fighting a sectarian war.”
Hossam Rafaei, a lawmaker from North Sinai, said that about 90 Christian families had arrived in Ismailia. After receiving help at a church, some have been put in government housing, while others found private accommodations.
Mr. Rafaei said his constituents were in a “state of war,” but another lawmaker from the area, Rahmi Abd Rabbo, tried to play down the violence, claiming that no more than five families had fled from Sinai. “It is not about being Muslim or Christian,” he said. “Police and military people are targeted, too.”
But fleeing Christians spoke of death lists compiled by militants and attacks in which militants had set houses on fire or burned the bodies of their victims. Many said they had no choice but to flee.
“Things were never this bad,” said one man from El Arish, speaking by phone. “They killed a couple of church leaders in the past, but the killings were far apart. Now we are told that are were making lists of all the Copts there.”
The man spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing for his life.
Aid workers in Ismailia estimated that at least 250 people had taken shelter in the city in churches and other safe places.
On Thursday, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi instructed his security chiefs to “completely eradicate terrorism in northern Sinai,” according to a statement issued by his office. But angry Copts also blamed Mr. Sisi’s Egyptian security forces for failing to protect them. The security forces have been battling Islamist militants in Sinai for years.
“The state allowed hate speech to flourish, and over time that has turned into action,” said Michel Antoune, an Evangelical church leader from Ismailia helping the refugees. “This the natural result of state indifference.”
Earlier on Friday, Mr. Antoune helped the wife of Kamel Youssef, the plumber who had been shot dead in El Arish on Thursday. “She broke our hearts,” Mr. Antoune said. “We did not know what to say to her.”
The violence against Christians could become a topic of discussion for the White House visit planned by Mr. Sisi in the coming months.
President Trump has made counterterrorism a central part of his Middle East policy. Mr. Trump has lavished praise on Mr. Sisi, praising him as a “fantastic guy,” despite criticism from human rights groups about Egypt’s dismal human rights record.
The Islamic State affiliate in Sinai is small compared with Iraq or Syria, but it has been increasingly active in recent weeks. It has carried out two rocket attacks on Israel in the past two weeks. There were no reported casualties, and Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said in a newspaper interview that such attacks, while “vexing,” did not pose a major security threat.
Photo: Christian families who had left El Arish, in northern Sinai, arriving at a church in Ismailia, Egypt. AHMED ABOULENEIN / REUTERS