By Bel Trew – The Times (UK)
Two Isis fighters wielding guns approached their target. Bahgat Zakhar, 58, was an Egyptian Copt on a “kill list” and the terrorists had been tracking him for days.
They were unfazed by the heavy presence of the Egyptian security forces deployed across Arish, the largest town in north Sinai. Bewildered, the polite veterinary surgeon stood up to shake the hands of the jihadists. They rammed him into the concrete terrace. “Repent, infidel. Convert and save yourself,” one of the men said, pressing the gun barrel to Mr Zakhar’s temple and forcing him to his knees.
The father-of-two shook his head, an eyewitness later told the family. So they shot him and strolled off. “They didn’t even run,” Mr Zakhar’s widow, Fawzia, told The Times from the Suez Canal town of Ismailia, where she and her two children were on the run from Isis.
Her family are among nearly 300 Christians who fled the violent peninsula in February after militants killed eight Copts, including her husband, in less than two weeks. It is the worst bout of violence to hit the Coptic community in north Sinai, an area where Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, claims to be winning a four-year war against terrorism. Isis has fuelled the persecution of Coptics and Christians across the region and all but a few have fled Syria and Iraq.
President Sisi, who stormed to power with a violent military takeover in 2013, flew to Washington last night to meet President Trump, in his first visit trip to the White House. It is hoped that the first meeting between Mr Trump and his Egyptian counterpart will reset relations between the two countries, once historic allies, after the US turned its back on President Mubarak in favour of the pro-democracy movement that emerged during the Arab Spring.
Mr Trump and Mr Sisi will discuss the issue of destroying Isis and US officials have praised the Egyptian leader’s stewardship, calling the country one of the region’s pillars of stability.
The persecution of Egyptian Copts, however, undermines such a claim. The militants in Arish did not use a car. “They did not care about being caught by security forces,” Fawzia added. “They were extremely confident. They killed my husband in broad daylight and walked off.”
Within days her 17-year-old son, Maros, received a call from Isis telling him that he was next. The terrorist group, which has been trying to build a satellite caliphate in Sinai since 2014, had put together a hit list of 40 names and circulated it about town. With little protection from the security forces Fawzia and several hundred other Copts packed their bags and ran. One month on they still do not feel safe. “They could come for my son at any moment,” she said.
The killings followed a December suicide bombing near the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo, the deadliest attack on Egypt’s nine million Christians in living memory. The blast, claimed by Isis, killed 29 people, mostly women and children, during a Sunday mass. The year before Islamic State had claimed to have downed a Russian passenger jet over Sinai, which killed all 224 people on board.
EGYPT’S EARLIEST CHRISTIANS
- Egypt’s 15 million Copts form the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
- They are one of the region’s oldest Christian communities, dating from the 1st century AD, established by Saint Mark.
- Christian manuscripts found in Upper Egypt have been dated to the third and fourth century.
- The word Coptic is derived from a Greek term meaning Egyptian.
- Coptic beliefs and practices have similarities to Roman Catholicism.
The attacks have raised questions about how successful Mr Sisi’s counter-terrorism strategies are. During his visit to Washington he is expected to argue that it is in America’s interests to help Egypt to beef up its military hardware and support its struggling economy with aid, both of which are needed to fight the insurgency in the Sinai.
The Trump administration, impressed by Mr Sisi’s tough-on-terrorism stance, has already signalled that it is willing to drop human rights conditions on the $1.3 billion of military aid that Egypt receives annually. But despite millions of dollars being funnelled into the country Mr Sisi has failed to suppress the insurgency.
Christians who fled north Sinai said the police and army were often powerless to intervene, overwhelmed by the guerrilla tactics of militants who effectively rule the peninsula. Isis, meanwhile, released a video last week showing its militants forming a police force to impose their rule.
“The security forces are doing what they can but it is not enough. They are just as targeted as we are and are too scared to intervene,” said Magda, 52, whose husband, Masiq, 58, was killed by Islamic State in May last year between two official military checkpoints. She, like Fawzia, fled Arish and is now sleeping on the floor of a flat with her three sons, who are also on the Isis kill list.
“When a bomb goes off in Arish and we call the security forces to come, most of the time there is an ambush waiting for them. The militants appear out of nowhere. It’s a war zone and we are all being hunted,” she added.
Despite the fact that her eldest son has been threatened multiple times by the militants, with nowhere to live they have no choice but to return to Arish. George, 62, and his wife, Sabreen, 53, are in a similar position despite being told that they are on the death list. The terrorists killed three of their friends.
They have been told that they may have to leave their temporary home soon. “We still don’t feel safe here. Isis know exactly where we are,” said George, who added that no one had control over the militants. “The security forces are suffering even more than we are: they are also being slaughtered.”
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