By Karoline Kamel – Mada Masr –
The fate of Sinai’s Coptic Christians is held between a church that closed its doors to them and a state that intervened too late
The sounds of crows fill the early morning hours in the city of Ismailia. Dozens of children chase after the birds in attempt at play as they snatch pieces of food scattered on the lawn of a youth hostel overlooking the Suez Canal.
Dozens of Coptic Christian families from the North Sinai city of Arish are temporarily housed in this hostel, having fled from their homes and business after militants have terrorized and launched a series of targeted attacks on the Coptic community, leaving seven dead in the last month.
The children run around, watching the journalists who have surrounded their families to collect their stories. They try to get the journalists’ attention by telling stories of charred bodies and murders and then go back to playing on the shores of the canal, before returning to tell the journalists more gruesome stories of death, gunfire and bombs.
“What a shame. After 55 years in Arish, I leave it fleeing with nothing but the clothes on my back and my cane,” 89-year-old Sefein Morkos says, his words laden with heartbreak and disbelief. He leans on every person he passes in search of condolences and reassurances. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” he repeats, as his eyes wander. He stops to catch his breath and asks for a glass of water. He tastes it, trying to detect a difference from the water he was drinking in his hometown of Arish only hours ago.
Morkos is the patriarch of Arish’s oldest Coptic family.
“I lived in Arish for 12 years under Israeli occupation. They never did anything to us. Now this is happening to us, and the government is silent and unable to protect us! I have been through a lot in my lifetime, and I fought for Egypt. But what I’m experiencing at the end of my life is unfair. I can’t live anywhere but Arish. It is my land,” Morkos says, as he inspects the small youth hostel, a building much smaller than the family house he lived in with his children and grandchildren in Arish.
As of Sunday, 70 Coptic families have fled Arish and taken refuge in Islamilia in a two-day span, according to Sureal Aziz, a priest at the Malak Church in Ismailia, who says he expects the numbers to continue to rise in the coming days. The Coptic families are currently being housed in the youth hostel, Saint Antonios Church and houses of Ismailia residents who have opened their doors to them.
In fact, many of Ismailia’s residents have offered help to the displaced families. Dozens donated blankets, food and clothes, while one local, who spoke to Mada Masr on the condition of anonymity, rented an apartment building to the church for a nominal symbolic fee to allow it to house families. The apartments, each of which consists of two bedrooms and a living room, are occupied by up to 22 people from the same family.
The overcrowding was evident upon arrival, as families arrived in Ismailia in private cars and buses, some of which carried dozens of people, and now move together in groups in fear of being followed or targeted.
Women were the ones that prompted the move, waking up early to collect what they could of the family’s possessions and preparing everyone to leave. They gathered their clothes, those of their children and husbands, as well as official documents and valuables, like gold and cash, that could be easily carried.
They held their homes dear, but they say that the lives of their sons and husbands are dearer.
A woman, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of persecution, sits on the floor of Saint Antonios Church, her feeble look in stark contrast to her angry words. “I’m not afraid of death. I’m dying of cancer anyway. But I insisted that we flee because I have four boys and my husband, and they’ve been killing men. What use is life to me if these men died? I left Ismailia and moved to Arish 36 years ago, when I got married, and now I’m coming back to Ismailia fleeing death.”
Angele Attia didn’t expect to relocate and leave behind her house and the memories that reside there only one month after losing her husband Attia Shehata, an officer who died in the recent bombing of a checkpoint in west Arish. She criticizes “the homeland” for which her husband sacrificed his life and that did not intervene to protect her from having to flee with nothing but the clothes on her back.
Where is the military that my husband left me to raise my children on my own to serve his whole life? she asks.
The string of lethal attacks on Copts pulled Attia away from her mourning and efforts to convince authorities to release her husband’s pension – money that she needed to continue to support her children – to find herself faced with a greater challenge, one that wasn’t limited to her children’s wellbeing but their very lives.
The men look equally defeated, their faces marked by despair, as they sit in circles discussing their situation and inability to protect their families.
Sameh Mansour, a civil servant and the son-in-law of Saad Hana, the elderly Coptic man who, along with his son, was shot and killed by militants, says that he has wanted to relocate for the last three years when Copts began to be targeted, albeit on a smaller scale. “Now that the killing has become daily, the media has taken notice,” he says.
“Since the January 25 revolution, we’ve been dying slowly. We can’t go to our jobs or live a normal life with our kids. We can’t sleep or eat,” Mansour says, adding that he previously submitted a work-transfer request that would have seen him reassigned to another governorate, but the governor denied his request, saying that he had been issued instructions to not approve such requests.
Despite their pain, mothers and grandmothers are busy making sure there is enough food and blankets for everyone, watching the children – some of whom have undergone traumatic experiences – who have become their main concern. The women are occupied in discussions that center on finding solutions to ensure their children can return to schools, especially as many of them are preparing for exams for their high school diplomas.
Another woman, who is related to Hana and talked to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, has two girls: Nermeen, who is nine, and Nancy, who is 7. She says that she brought the girls’ books with the family to allow them to study, as she doesn’t know how long it will be until they can go back to school.
They kept reassuring us that the situation is safe and ignoring our demands. Now, we’re too scared to go to the University. What are we supposed to do?
“I finally have found myself like the Syrians, escaping death with only the clothes on my back,” she says angrily. “The people who say that we’re better than war-torn Syria and Iraq should come and see our lives as death chases us.”
Mina Magdy, a fifth-year student at Sinai University’s dentistry school, says that 70 Coptic students from various department at the university are now living in a Coptic church in the Masaeed area of Arish, unable to go to their university whose semester commenced two weeks ago. Magdy says that the university has ignored students’ requests to transfer to other universities.
“They kept reassuring us that the situation is safe and ignoring our demands. Now, we’re too scared to go. What are we supposed to do? I only have one semester to go, but others still have two or three years left until graduation. What are they going to do?”
The women are weighed down by their suppressed grievances and insist on talking to the media, despite the fears that led them to request anonymity and refuse to have their pictures taken. Some talk about their participation in presidential elections and their expectation for a better life after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president. They also speak of their shock at the church’s neglect, saying that Pope Tawadros II had only issued a statement and had not addressed the issue any further.
“Where is Sisi, whom we elected and supported? Where is the security and control that he talks about? If we had found the safety and security that he talks about in Sinai, we wouldn’t have left. We left with our fridges running because we didn’t know what’s going to happen,” says one of the women, adding that she borrowed money to prepare for her daughter’s marriage and doesn’t know if she will find it when she returns to Arish.
In periodically issued statements and official meetings, members of Egypt’s Armed Forces have stated that the military is in control of the situation. However, Maher Fayez, the nephew of Hana, thinks otherwise. “My uncle and cousin were killed in their house. After they killed them, they burned the house and left. All of these killings occurred in 10 days, and the targeting of Copts is constant. We want to be able to live. The country is shutting us up so that the government doesn’t look bad and seems to be in control. Any talk of security control is lies,” he says.
According to Fayez, the state’s strategy in Arish is limited to two-hour security sweeps, in which security forces arrest people for minor offenses, such as the failure to produce IDs, but he claims that they don’t come near the actual terrorists.
“At first, they would say that they are outside of the city. How were these extremists, most of whom are young men in their 20s, able to enter the heart of the city which is studded with military, police and intelligence? And how are the weapons passed to them?” he asks.
The Coptic community in Arish is not going through sectarian tension, Mansour says, pointing to the fact that Muslim neighbors helped them escape. Instead, he says it is a political issue.
Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Waly confidently declares during her visit to Ismailia that things would be resolved quickly. “Within three or four days, everyone will be able to go back to their homes in Arish,” she says.
However, the displaced families are skeptical.
“Madam minister says that we will be back in a few days. Does this mean that they will accomplish what they failed to do in three years in a few days? I left because I learned that those who killed my brother-in-law and my father-in-law came to my house looking for me. I’m living there and I haven’t seen any security, because soldiers die too. If someone says that they will fix the situation, they’re lying to us. And if they send us back, then they’re condemning us to death,” says Mansour.
In one of the church gatherings in Ismailia, the priest tells the displaced families that what has happened is a test from God that they have to endure.
“No, your holiness. This suffering is too much and we are tired,” says Awatef, one of the women who fled from Arish. “Which god would allow this torture? Enough with the talk that doesn’t mend the wounds! Our children and men are being killed in front of us. We fled our homes and you’re still repeating that God is consoling us, and then you return to your homes and your churches away from us.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement on Friday condemning the attacks. “We denounce these events which aim to strike at our national unity and attempt to break our united stance as one front against the malicious terrorism that is being exported to us from abroad.”
“Where is the Pope?” the woman in the church continues. “And where is our Bishop Kosman [the bishop of the North Sinai dioceses] who shut the door of the cathedral on our faces when we asked to hide there or at least put our children there. We see Syria and Iraq on television, but we see no coverage of Sinai, except for lies.”
They’re going to talk about our solid national unity, which will not be affected, and they will bring in a sheikh and a priest to hug each other, Mansour says. We’re used to these scenes.
According to Mansour, what the Coptic community of Arish is going through is not sectarian tension, as he says their Muslim neighbors helped them escape. Instead, it is a political issue. “Enough talking. The pope doesn’t know anything about us, and Bishop Kosman fled when he heard about the death of my father-in-law,” he says.
Priests and sheikhs make their way to the youth hostel where the majority of the families reside as soon as news begins to spread that Waly and members of Parliament are coming. However, the families keep their distance, a sign that they refuse to be manipulated or used to recreate the theater of national unity that the state puts on the stage after each of these events.
Mansour hugs his wife who lost her father and brother a few days ago. “Life in Arish is like death. I love my country, but it doesn’t love me back. I want it, but it doesn’t want me to live.”
Translated by Heba Afify