The plight of the Copts in the North Sinai town of al-Arish is irking Egypt in its entirety. Arish Copts have been fleeing town since 22 February 2017 in the wake of threats and a wave of killings waged against them by Islamist jihadis in North Sinai and inside the town of Arish.
On 30 January the 35-year-old trader Wa’el Youssef was shot in front of his wife and little son at midday in his grocery shop in Downtown Arish. The killers sat down and drank soft drinks and ate potato chips as Youssef lay dead.
On 12 February, the doctor Bahgat William Zakher, 40, was shot dead when masked jihadis stopped his car in Arish. The third Copt to meet his death at the hands of the jihadis was Adel Shawqy, 57, a labourer, who was shot in the head on 13 February. The fourth, the 45-year-old schoolteacher Gamal Tawfiq Girgis, was killed on Thursday 16 February. And on 21 February, Saad Hakim Hanna, 65, was shot in the head as was his son Medhat whose body was burned.
The police and military in North Sinai are fighting a bitter battle with Islamist terrorists barricaded in the nearby mountainous area. The security forces, scores of whom have been killed by the terrorists, concentrate their efforts on protecting the town and guarding all entrance points to it but, according to testimonies by the locals, the killers of the Copts may not be coming from outside town but are from among Islamists residing in Arish. It is feared if the battle moves into town it would lead to guerrilla warfare in the streets, and countless civilians would fall victim.
Not first time
This is not the first time the Islamists target Copts in North Sinai. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 and the consequent rise of Islamist power, the jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula grew exceedingly powerful. Once the post-Arab Spring Islamist rule of the Muslim Brothers fell in July 2013, a result of the massive 30-million strong revolution by the Egyptian people on 30 June 2013 and the military backing to evade civil war, the Islamists retaliated with a vengeance. Copts, forever the easy prey since they are a peaceful lot, were targeted with Islamist threats to leave North Sinai or risk being killed. In 2012, fliers were circulated that gave Copts a 48-hour ultimatum to leave town. It was no hollow threat; the Coptic priest Fr Mina Aboud Sharubim was shot to death in Arish, and the 65-year-old Christian trader Magdy Lamei was beheaded in his hometown of Sheikh Zuwayed near the border town of Rafah. The Islamists burned the church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in Arish. All but a trickle of the Copts in North Sinai left the district and went back to their home towns or villages, mostly in Upper Egypt. But this meant their livelihoods had been cut short, and their lives seriously disrupted.
In January 2014, Egyptians approved a new Constitution and, in June 2014 elected the secular Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as President. Relative peace and stability returned. The Copts who had left North Sinai went back, the church was repaired and reopened, and life went back close to normal.
However, a number of Copts in North Sinai were kidnapped for ransom and several who could not be ransomed were killed. In June 2016, Fr Raphail Moussa was shot dead in the street in Arish.
A video released by Daesh, Egypt, on 19 February included explicit threats to the Copts in Egypt. The video carried the title “Fight all al-Mushrikeen” (literally those who worship more than one god. Christians believe in the Trinity, so are seen as Mushrikeen). They used such words as: “We will chase you; we will put an end to you; you won’t escape us”.
The video featured the last words of Mahmoud Shafiq, 22, whose jihadi name was Abu-Abdullah al-Masri, and who blew himself up in the church of al-Boutrossiya in Cairo during Sunday Mass on 11 December 2016, killing 28 worshippers. Shafiq threatened Christians with death and bloodshed, and that the strike “in your temple is only the first of many more to come”. The Daesh video no longer used the name “Sinai Province” but used “Islamic State – Egypt” instead. This was taken to indicate that the Jihadi group was no longer restricting its operations to Sinai, but was spreading out in all Egypt.
None of the recent killers of the Arish Copts have to date been caught. The killings are typical of practices by the Islamic State and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis in Sinai. Terrorised, Coptic families in Arish began packing and leaving. Those who found it difficult to leave sent their children away to relatives out of North Sinai.
“We have been leading very hard lives since the last killings,” one resident of Arish who asked to remain anonymous told Watani. “We can’t easily leave Arish because our livelihoods are here, our homes are here, and we have nowhere else to go. We keep on asking ourselves every day ‘who’s next?’” But this was before the last double-killing of the Hannas forced the Copts of Arish to leave everything behind and flee for their lives.
The exodus begins
The exodus of Copts from Arish had begun.
Eight families left Arish on 22 February to their hometown of Assiut, 350km south of Cairo. Among them was the family of Girgis who was shot dead on 16 February. Other families left to Cairo, Qalyoubiya, and Suez. The [extended] family of Saad Hakim Hanna, 65, and his son Medhat, 45, left to their hometown of Suez to bury their dead and to stay there.
Other families who originally belong to Arish but had to leave on account of the recent threats and killings headed to the town of Ismailiya on the Suez Canal. The Coptic Orthodox and the Evangelical Churches in Ismailiya received them, and offered them living quarters in church guesthouses, State-owned youth hostels, or in rented flats. Rev. Ezzat Saleeb of Ismailiya told Watani that Cairo churches were sending aid and relief since, owing to their haste to leave and to tight security regulations, the families exiting Arish had problems moving their belongings outside town.
Anba Saraphim, Bishop of Ismailiya, ordered the formation of a committee to work to accommodate those fleeing Arish, and to make sure all their needs are met. On Sunday 26 February, he announced the opening of a bank account to receive donations for the relocated families: Account Number 1069241 with Union National Bank – Egypt – Ismailia Br. The Bishops of the other two Canal cities: Bishop Tadros of Port Said and Bishop Bemwa of Suez announced their absolute willingness to help with the refugees’ plight, whether by hosting them or gathering donations to cover their needs. Later in the week, a number of Arishi Coptic families headed to Port Said.
Leaving everything behind
To date, close to 150 Coptic families have exited Arish, many of them women and children. Since they left in haste without their belongings, relief and donations from Copts all over Egypt poured in. On Sunday 26 February relief workers said there were ample blankets and foods, but there was need for home utilities and medication.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi met Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to follow up on the needs of the families displaced from Arish, and ordered that all their needs should be met. The Cabinet formed an operations room to follow up on the matter, working in coordination with the local authorities in the governorates to which the Arish families relocated and also with the Church.
Premier Ismail called Pope Tawadros II to confirm the State’s denouncement of the targeting of Copts, and to pledge that all possible aid would be offered to the displaced families.
On Saturday 25 February Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali paid a visit to Ismailiya where she met the families relocated there. Ms Wali stressed that all State apparatuses were working to make the lives of those displaced in every way easier. She said the Youth Ministry had opened its youth hostels in Ismailiya to receive the newcomers, and that the Social Solidarity Ministry was opening new refuge homes for them. The ministry also pledged it would pay the rents of the flats many of the families were accommodated in. She said that, in conjunction with the Education Ministry, arrangements were being made for schoolchildren and students to join schools and universities in their new locations, with the Ministry of Social Solidarity paying the fees. Ms Wali stressed that the Health Ministry was ensuring that adequate medical care would be provided for all.
Health and social care
Sunday 26 February saw Health Minister Ahmed Emad Eddin Radi join a medical convoy to Ismailiya. The convoy, which stayed in Ismailiya for three days, included medical specialists as well as a mobile laboratory and two truckloads of medicines. Mr Radi said that the Health Ministry hospitals would offer free health care and treatment for all who needed them, and for that reason health cards were issued to every displaced individual. Local university teaching hospitals also pledged their services free of charge to the relocated Arish Copts.
Minister of Labour Force Muhammad Saafan promised that his ministry would help the displaced persons find adequate work in their host towns, and would provide means of transportation to and from their places of work if these were in remote areas. He kept good on his promise; two days later he announced that 80 jobs in Ismailiya’s private sector were available for the relocated Copts, and that the transportation needed would be provided.
According to Ms Wali, the Arish families’ plight is transitory; they are sure to go back home when matters settle down. In reply to a question of when that was to be, she said it was not for her to set any date since this was a security issue.
MPs Marguerite Azer and Mona Mounir had already rallied the House of Representatives to denounce the killing of the Copts and to demand that the State should do its utmost to resolve the crisis. MP Mounir demanded that Arish and its vicinity should be evacuated of civilians in order to enable the army to deal with the terrorists without threat to civilians. But specialists say this would be no real solution to the problem, since many of the Islamist terrorists are resident in Arish.
The real target
Political analysts and researchers specialised in Islamist affairs have been unanimous in their opinion that the targeting of Copts was in fact meant to target the Egyptian State.
Ahmed Ban, who specialises in research on Islamist groups, insisted that the targeting of Copts came in retaliation against the successive defeats inflicted on the Sinai jihadis, especially in the Arish-Sheikh Zuwayed-Rafah triangle, by the Egyptian military. Mr Ban said that, by attacking the ‘infidel’ Copts, the Jihadi movement was attempting to raise the morale of its members and recruit new ones. He said Daesh jihadis in Egypt are reproducing the same barbaric tactics used against Christians by Daesh in Iraq’s Mosul and in Syria.
In total agreement with Mr Ban was Muhammad Habib, another expert on Islamist movements. The Islamists, Mr Habib says, see that Copts have gone back on the dhimmi covenant which pledges protection for non-Muslims. The Copts have supported Egypt’s secular State under President Sisi, he said; accordingly, the Islamists decided that the Copts and all they owned have become legitimate targets.
Political analyst and writer Nabil Sharaf Eddin said he believed the jihadis were using the Copts to target the Egyptian State. The Islamists, he said, were attempting to send the message that the secular State the Copts opted for is unable to protect them. The jihadis, Mr Sharaf Eddin said,also saw an added advantage to their attacks against the Copts: that of augmenting Coptic grievances. The Islamists hoped thus to turn the Copts against the State, he said.
Pope Tawadros II delegated a number of Coptic Orthodox bishops to visit the al-Arish Copts who took refuge in Ismailiya. The bishop delegation’s purpose in the visit was to ensure that the Church supported and prayed for the relocated Copts, and to supervise and aid the efforts by the local Church to offer all possible services to them. The delegation, which arrived at Ismailiya on 27 February, included Anba Pimen, head of the Church’s Crisis Management Committee; Anba Moussa, Bishop of Youth; Anba Raphail, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod; Anba Saraphim, Bishop of Ismailiya; Anba Zusima, Bishop of Etfeeh; Anba Qozman, Bishop of al-Arish; and Anba Yulius, Bishop-General of Old Cairo. The bishops met the families of the victims killed by the Islamist terrorists in Arish, offered them comfort, prayed for them, and pledged all aid possible. They also met the displaced families, listened to their plights and heard their accounts of what they went through until they had to flee Arish.
“May God protect our dear Egypt”
For their part, all the Churches in Egypt condemned the killings in Arish and the consequent forced flight of the Copts from their hometown. A statement by the Egypt Council of Churches declared that this represented a flagrant violation of the Constitution and the most basic citizenship rights; also an infringement on the dignity of the Egyptian State. The Council stressed that it had full confidence in the ability of the State to handle the crisis, meet the needs of the displaced families, and make sure they go back to their homes as soon as can be.
Both the Coptic Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church denounced the targeting of the Copts and the violation of their rights as Egyptian citizens. The Catholic Church pledged, through all its social and health service organisations, total support for the displaced families.
The Coptic Orthodox Church, headed by Pope Tawadros II, issued a statement in which it described the attack against Arish Copts as an attempt to strike the national unity of Egypt and to shatter the one front Egyptians have formed against “the terrorism exported to us from outside Egypt, on account of the conflicts and tensions in the Arab region.
“The Church mourns its sons, the sons of the nation, and knows that their precious blood cries out to God for justice; He will see and judge.
“The Church is in constant contact with the State officials concerned; also with Anba Qozman, Bishop of North Sinai; and with the relevant local authorities to tackle the aftermath of the attacks against the Copts in Arish.”
The statement concluded with: “May God protect our dear Egypt which shall forever remain a homeland in which we live and which lives within us.”
“We are all Copt”
The last sentence in the Coptic Orthodox Church’s statement prompted columnist Hamdy Rizq to write in the Cairo daily al-Masry al-Youm under the title “The Church…O mountain, no gust can shake you!” In this he made reference to the Egyptian proverb that likens the firm and strong to a mountain which no blast can ever shake. In his column, Mr Rizq expounded on the forbearance of the Copts and their Church, and on the countless sacrifices and victims of terrorism they offered for their love of Egypt. Yet their suffering never led them to turn against Egypt, he wrote; quite the contrary, they always realised they were being hit in order to bring down the bigger target: Egypt. Despite the pain and anger of many Copts, he reminded, they always stood together with their Church as a solid rock to back Egypt, and would never be taken in to give up on their army, police, or secular State.
Mr Rizq concluded with a passionate plea to all Egyptians to display compassion with and support for their Coptic fellow Egyptians; to visit, protect, welcome and comfort those who had fled their homes; and to meet—unasked—all their needs, since they are too dignified to ask. “In this calamity,” he wrote, “We are all Copt.”
Reporting by: Georgette Sadeq, Nader Shukry, Mervat Ayoub, Lillian Nabil, Marina Barsoum, Basma Nasser
1 March 2017