The figures are staggering: In just two weeks, four Copts were killed on identity in separate incidents in the North Sinai town of al-Arish. The four were shot to death during the busy hours of the day, by masked men who belong to the Islamist Jihadi groups in Sinai. It is a well-known fact that the police are focusing their efforts on protecting the entry points to the city and that their presence inside Arish is not as dense as it is around it. The jihadists have repeatedly targeted the police and army squads and checkpoints in the vicinity of Arish and in all of North Sinai, leading to the loss of scores of lives from among the police and military, as well as civilians.
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 civic 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 started going 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.
Four shot dead
Terror struck again as 2017 set in. On 30 January, a 35-year-old trader was shot at midday in his grocery shop on 23 July Street in Downtown Arish. Wa’el Youssef was in his shop together with his wife and their little son when three masked men broke into the shop. They caught the trader’s wife and, before she could even scream, shot her husband. Three bullets penetrated his body, and he instantly died. They then sat down and drank soft drinks and ate potato chips as Youssef’s body lay dead before his wife and son. Youssef leaves behind another son who was not with his mother in the shop when the father was killed.
On 12 February 2017, the Coptic medical doctor Bahgat William Zakher, 40, was driving his car in al-Obour district south of Arish when he was stopped under threat of gunfire by masked jihadis. They shot him in the head, neck and belly; he instantly died. Dr Zakher leaves behind a widow and a son and daughter. He originally comes from Alexandria, so his funeral service was held at Mar-Girgis Church in al-Shatby, Alexandria, and he was buried there.
The third Copt to meet his death at the hands of the jihadists was Adel Shawqy, 57, a labourer from Samran district in Arish, who was shot in the head on 13 February 2017.
Also in Samran, Arish, the fourth Copt was killed on Thursday 16 February 2017. Gamal Tawfiq Girgis, 45, was a schoolteacher who owned a shoe shop in Samran. It was Thursday Market and the area was crowded with buyers and vendors when masked men shot at him as he tended his shop together with his wife. He died of wounds in the head and chest. His attackers fled.
None of the killers have to date been caught; the killings are typical of the Islamic State and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis in Sinai. Al-Arish Copts are terrorised; many have again packed and left. Those who find it difficult to leave have sent their children away to relatives out of North Sinai.
“We have been leading very hard lives since the last four killings,” one resident of Arish who asked to remain anonymous told Watani. “We can’t leave because our livelihoods are here, our homes here, and we have nowhere else to go. We keep on asking ourselves every day ‘who’s next?’”
19 February 2017