In the wake of unconfirmed news that IS in Libya have killed the 21 Copts they had abducted last January, President Sisi ordered an airlift for Egyptians working in Libya and wishing to return home. The Crisis Committee he had assigned with tackling the predicament of the Copts in Libya has been in session for three days now “following the matter minute-by-minute, making extensive and ongoing contacts with official and non-official Libyan parties in order to clarify the situation and learn the truth,” read a statement issued on Thursday 12 February by the President’s office.
On Friday 13 February, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab met members of the victims’ families who had come to Cairo to demand more dedicated official efforts for the return of their loved ones, alive or even dead. Mr Mahalb promised the government would do its very best to resolve the crisis.
In orange jumpsuits
Photographs of the Copts in the orange jumpsuits which denotes the wearer has been marked for execution were posted on the IS online publication Dabeq and circulated on their Twitter account https://ia601506.us.archive.org/27/items/Dabiq7/Dabiq_7.pdf
The photos showed the captives handcuffed, blindfolded, and driven by masked men along a beach.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said it was investigating the authenticity of the pictures.
The 21 Copts were abducted in Libya on two separate occasions, only one week apart. Thirteen of the hostages were kidnapped in Tripoli in early January when masked Islamists broke into the housing unit where they boarded, asked about the Christians living there, and seized them. The other seven were kidnapped a week earlier in Sirte while on a bus heading home to Egypt. They were singled out from among the other bus passengers; the Muslims were allowed to go on with their trip whereas the Copts were taken captive.
In fact, however, there appears to be next to nothing the Egyptian authorities can do about the plight of the Copts. The Coptic workers had been kidnapped in IS-controlled territory over which the Libyan government has no authority, so attempts to resolve the crisis through official channels came to nothing. The Egyptian authorities tried to recruit the help of non-official Libyan sources and tribal elders on the Egypt-Libya border to mediate a safe exit for the Copts, but with no success. Noteworthy is that the Egyptian government has for months repeatedly issued warnings against travelling to Libya or working there without official papers.
Since IS has a notorious worldwide record in extremism, brutality, and terrorist crime, and in holding no negotiations with governments, it is far-fetched that official intervention may bear fruit. In the case of the Coptic captives, IS had made no demands in the first place for their release.
Friday 13 February saw the families and friends of the kidnapped—possibly killed—Copts, most of whom come from impoverished villages in Minya, Upper Egypt, stage a protest at the Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo. The problem with Egyptian labourers is that they do not normally travel alone but with members of their extended families, brothers and first and second cousins, all of whom live together. This means that the gunmen can locate them easily.
The protestors demanded official intervention for the rescue of the Copts or, in case they had been killed, that their bodies should be shipped to Egypt for burial. Later in the day, they boarded buses and headed to St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, where they joined in prayer for their loved ones. The events were organised by the Maspero Youth Union, a Coptic youth movement.
This was not the first protest the families of the kidnapped had staged. Last January, some 130 men from the Upper Egyptian villages of the kidnapped Copts headed to the Foreign Ministry with demands for more efforts to free the victims. The men took the trip to Cairo despite their extreme poverty and the need for them to be in their villages to support the women and children of the kidnapped victims. With them were the local human rights activists Magdy Melek and Ishaq Hanna.
Deputy Foreign Minister Yasser Reda, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdel-Ati, and Cairo’s Ambassador to Libya Muhammad Abu-Bakr met the protestors, a few of whom lost control and wept. One man wailed that they wanted their sons back even if dead. “Let us at least give them a decent burial if they have already been killed,” he said.
Situation far too complicated
Mr Yasser explained the efforts of the Egyptian government to free the captives, saying that the Crisis Committee was holding intensive talks with Libyan authorities, influential tribal elders, as well as independent public figures and NGOs in Libya. “The situation there,” he said, “is far too complicated. Yet we are doing our very best to resolve he crisis.” He explained that the absence of Egyptian diplomatic presence in Libya and the fact that the Libyan government has lost control over several regions in the country make the task of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry a very hard one. “But we feel and share in every bit of your pain and agony,” he said.
The Upper Egyptian protest—scores of Cairenes had joined them by then—moved to the UN office in Cairo where they selected six representatives to meet Khawla Mattar, director of the media centre of the UN in Cairo. They handed her a memorandum in which they listed the names of the kidnapped Copts and the dates on which they had been abducted, and demanded that the UN should actively help to have them released and brought safely home. They referred to UN international codes and treaties human rights and on the protection of forcefully displaced persons. The international organisation, the memo said, was best suited to carry out talks with the various parties involved in the abduction crime. Ms Mattar expressed her deep sympathy and promised to have the memo translated and raised to the UN Secretary-General for appropriate action.
Pope Tawadros II met the families of the kidnapped Copts and spent time praying with them and reassuring them. “The government is doing its best,” he said, “and the Church is praying for the good Lord to protect them,” he told the despondent, fearful families.
IS said that its arm in Libya had captured “the Coptic crusaders of Egypt” in revenge for persecuted female Muslim converts who, according to IS, were “tortured and murdered” by the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Islamist group was referring to two Coptic women, Wafaa’ Qostantine and Kamilia Shehata whom the Islamists claim had converted to Islam but were forced by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church to go back to Christianity. The stories go back to the years 2004 and 2010 respectively; in both cases the women were married to Coptic priests and left home owing to domestic problems. After public outcries at their disappearance and allegations of their having converted to Islam, the women re-appeared and publicly denied having converted, a fact confirmed by the absence of any official conversion papers. Yet Islamists claimed the women had converted and the Church was holding them against their will, a claim belied by the fact that the Coptic Church has never been known to force anyone into the Christian faith or to hold anyone at all whether willingly or against their will. IS also alluded to an attack in 2010 against a Catholic Church in Baghdad in which 58 Christian worshippers lost their lives, which the group said was in retribution for what the Coptic Church was allegedly doing against Muslim women converts in Egypt.
Scores of Copts living and working in Libya have been killed. In a crime that raised public agony and outrage, a Coptic doctor and his wife were killed and their teenage daughter kidnapped when masked men broke into their home in Sirte last December. The body of the daughter was later found with two bullets in her chest and one in the head.
Last year, the bodies of seven Copts were found near the city of Benghazi.
Warning against travel to Libya
The Foreign Ministry constantly reiterates its warning to all Egyptians residing in Libya, calling on them to avoid conflict areas. It also keeps renewing its travel alert to the neighbouring country, urging those travelling to Libya to secure a visa from the Libyan embassy prior to their travel. Egypt renewed its warning against travel to Libya in December.
Thousands of Egyptians work in Libya, primarily in the construction industry.
The latest high profile case of execution by the Islamic State took place in early February when the jihadists killed captured Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasseba by burning him alive.
“We’re fighting you everywhere”
In an interview with Libyan writer and activist Malik al-Sharif published by Watani International on 18 January 2015 under the title Islamist show of force, Mr Sharif explained the complicated situation in Libya, the Islamist alliances there, and the regions controlled by IS: Sirte and Derna, and part of Tripoli. In these regions, the Libyan flag has been replaced with the flag of al-Qaeda which is now raised over all official buildings in the region. IS, he said, is also in control of a number of airports, including Sirte, Tripoli and Misrata, as well as Sabratha coast port. The Libyan government controls only the east of Libya (850km off the Egyptian border), till Kufra in the south, but not Derna.
“There are two million Egyptian workers in Libya,” Mr Sharif said, “50 per cent of them are Copts and these are in real peril.”
Following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, he reminded, operations against Copts began in Benghazi. Some 100 Copts were caught and charged with preaching Christianity, a Coptic doctor was killed, two churches in Benghazi were burned, and seven Copts were tortured and shot to death and their bodies cast on the beach in Benghazi.
When Copts started fleeing Benghazi to Sirte, he said, the targeting of Copts moved to Sirte.
But why are Copts especially targeted? Watani asked. “Apart from the fact that the Islamist militias commit crimes on religious identity,” Mr Sharif explained, “they also seek to convey a message to the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi that ‘we are fighting you everywhere’.” They wish to send Egypt a message that Egyptians have no dignity after the overthrow of the MB regime in Egypt in July 2013. They want to say that neither President Sisi nor Egypt’s current secular regime can protect them.
Killed on religious identity
It is especially hard for the Copts in Sirte, Mr Sharif insisted, since there is no safe exit for them. The eastern exit to Benghazi is dominated by The State Organisation, and the way out of Sirte to Tripoli in the west is riddled with perilous outlaw activity. “So I expect more Copts to be kidnapped in the coming days,” he said.
In case of the 21 kidnapped Copts, Mr Sharif said, IS did not demand ransom. This should come as no surprise since, he said, “the militias do not need money; they already receive strong financing from Qatar, Turkey and the MB. Moreover, they have other huge resources of crime money out of robbing banks.
“They have no demands,” Mr Sharif said. “When about a year ago they abducted five members of the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Libya, the Islamist militias had a very clear demand: that the Egyptian government would exchange them for the prominent Libyan Islamist commander Abu-Ubaida al-Zawi who was then being held by Egypt. Egypt did release him, and the diplomats came home safely.
“In case of the abduction of Copts, however,” he said, “there were no demands. Killing them achieves two main goals for IS: killing on religious identity, and embarrassing the Egyptian State especially after allegations that President Sisi is supporting the Libyan General Khalifa Haftar who is leading a nation wide anti-Islamist alliance in Libya.”
14 February 2015