By Heba Saleh – Financial Times –
Issaf Sameh, 10, tapped the side of his head and then his forehead to indicate where the bullets that killed his grandfather struck. Masked Isis militants shot the elderly man last week after storming his home in Arish, one of a string of attacks on Coptic Christians in the northern Sinai city.
“They stole from the flat and set fire to it,” says Issaf, whose uncle was also shot and killed during the assault. Issaf, his grandmother and other relatives are taking shelter in a youth hostel in Ismailia, a city midway along the Suez Canal, after they joined hundreds of terrified Christians who fled Arish last week. It is the first such exodus from an Egyptian city in living memory and highlights the growing fears of a minority who make up about 10 per cent of the 90m population.
For more than three years, Islamist militants, who swore allegiance to Isis in 2014, targeted police and soldiers in northern Sinai, killing hundreds of security officers. Muslims suspected of being informers have also been attacked in the region that is the epicentre of Egypt’s fight against jihadis. But in recent weeks, Isis has turned its sights on the Coptic community.
At least seven Christians have been killed in attacks blamed on the jihadis in Arish in February. And Isis put out a chilling video this month calling on its supporters to target Christians across Egypt, describing them as its “favourite prey”. The footage featured a suicide bomber who killed 29 worshippers in an attack on a church in Cairo in December.
The fear for many is that the attacks in Arish and the Isis messaging could inspire extremists elsewhere across the country, triggering more widespread assaults against Christians, including attempts to drive them out of districts.
“It could easily happen in small villages because the attacks will be seen to have achieved their aim in Arish,” says Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a civil society group.
Christians have long complained of entrenched discrimination, which they say has been compounded by the rise of Islamism across the Middle East in recent decades.
Copts incurred the wrath of many Islamists after the community largely backed the military’s overthrow of a Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013 that brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the president, to power. Mokhtar Awad, a research fellow at the programme on extremism at George Washington University, says Isis hopes that “inciting sectarian violence will be the first step to unravel Egypt”.
“It was a matter of time before Isis focused its energy to target Egypt’s minorities systematically like it has in other countries,” he says. “But the tactic itself is a sign of weakness strategically as the group’s efforts to cause significant havoc in Egypt have thus far been checked.”
Tensions between Muslims and Christians in Egypt periodically erupt into violence in villages, especially in the poorer south. Copts there make up a disproportionately large number of people kidnapped for ransom because they are seen to be weak and lack the protection of a clan.
In North Sinai, the Christian community has come under sporadic attack since 2013, but residents say no such concerted campaign has ever been waged against them.
“In the past we used to try to reassure ourselves, but we started to be terrified since last week, when they began to kill people inside their homes,” says Kirollos, a maintenance man who fled Arish. “I don’t know when we can go home, and I can’t be sure if I go back that they won’t return.”
The government and churches in Ismailia have provided temporary accommodation and there are promises of flats, jobs and school places for the displaced Christians. Civil servants have also been given a month off work to allow them to spend time away from Arish.
But some are concerned that, once the spotlight fades, they will be forgotten. Others are afraid for the property they left behind.
“I am scared they will rob and burn my home,” says Mary, a civil servant who fled Arish. “It represents my work for 30 years and that of my father before me. If it were up to me I would go back because they don’t kill women, but I am afraid for my two sons.