The governorate of Ismailia was crowded on Saturday after dozens of Coptic families arrived from Al-Arish City, North Sinai, fearing for their lives after threats by militants increased.
Following the rise of militant operations that targeted Coptic citizens inside the North Sinai city of Al-Arish, 90 Coptic families decided on Friday to leave the city, heading to Ismailia governorate, a source from the Diocese of North Sinai told Daily News Egypt.
The Egyptian Al-Azhar institution said Friday that it strongly condemns threats against Copts, demanding a tight security grip, state-media reported Friday, adding that the three Egyptian churches were working on sheltering the families until they could return home.
Members of parliament, political parties, and reporters went to Ismailia on Saturday to visit the families. According to state-media, the Diocese of Ismailia announced hosting and supporting the families that arrived. There were calls on social media from people who visited families, complaining about the lack of provisions, including mattresses and blankets.
The families’ decisions came after facing a clear and direct threat to their safety from militants who are believed to be members of the IS affiliated group ‘Sinai Province’ that recently launched intensive operations targeting Copts in Al-Arish.
Murders of Coptic citizens based in Al-Arish have reportedly been on the rise directly after the issuance of the footage from the ‘Islamic State’ that included threats to the Copts in Egypt and showed scenes of the perpetrator of the Cairo Church attack that led to the death of 29 Copts.
“The families are now heading to Ismailia. They left behind them expensive properties and their good memories in the city. They do not want to be slaughtered or burned to death,” the source said.
Directly following the release of the IS footage that carried clear threats to the Copts of Egypt, several anonymous militants stormed the residences of a number of Copts in Al-Arish and either kidnapped or killed them.
On Thursday, it is believed that a number of the ‘Sinai Province’ militants chased a Coptic citizen in Al-Arish named Kamal Rouef, slaughtered him inside his house, and then burned it, a local journalist asserted to Daily News Egypt on Friday on condition of anonymity.
Since the beginning of February, seven Copts have been killed in Al-Arish through direct shooting, while two others were burnt to death. On Wednesday, two Coptic citizens were found killed in Al-Arish. Their corpses had been thrown behind a state-run language school.
The two corpses belong to an elderly Coptic man named Saied Hakim—65 years old—and his son, Medhat Saied—45 years old. The father was killed by gunshots to his head, a local journalist said on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, his son was burnt alive. The two are believed to have been subjected to a kidnapping conducted by anonymous militants days before the killing took place.
In response to the recent and escalated assaults against the Copts in North Sinai, the Coptic Orthodox Church released a statement on Friday that asserted that Pope Tawadros II is following the current updates about the situation in North Sinai, also issuing a condemnation of the killings.
“The Coptic Orthodox Church is in continuous communication with the assigned officials and the archbishop of North Sinai to control the situation and mitigate the negative effects of these assaults,” the Orthodox Church’s statement read.
Daily News Egypt made several attempts to get a response from the Ministry of Interior about what is taking place in North Sinai regarding assaults against the Coptic residents there and their displacement, however, no responses were received.
“We will not wait until the IS affiliated militants storm our residences and kill us. Recently a number of Coptic residences in Al-Arish were subjected to burnings and their owners either shot, burnt to death, or slaughtered. The security presence is weak and cannot suspend the militants’ movements,” a guardian of a Coptic family that left Al-Arish said on condition of anonymity.
He added, talking to Daily News Egypt, that no instructions from the Orthodox Church or the government were issued for them to abandon the city, but the departure was their own decision, as their lives are in real danger.
“Till now there are 90 families left in Al-Arish. These 90 families are representing the majority of the Coptic residents in Al-Arish, whose numbers amounts to 100 families. With the emergence of Saturday’s first morning light, the city will be without Copts,” he stressed.
Some of the families that left Al-Arish headed back to their original governorates, from where they came to North Sinai either for the sake of studying or work; however, a number of other families are considered to be original residents of the city and face problems of finding and affording new homes, said Mina Thabet, program director of minorities and vulnerable groups at the Egyptian Commission for Human Rights [ECRF].
Last week, under the name of the “Islamic State in Egypt” and with the headline of “Fight All Infidels,” the IS-affiliated group released a new video, issuing fierce threats against the Coptic citizens of Egypt, accusing them of insulting Islam, and threatening to carry out more attacks against them.
The Observatory for Extremist and Takfiri Thoughts, affiliated with the Dar Al-Ifta, considered the released video from IS in Egypt an incitement of sectarian strife between Muslims and Coptic citizens, attempting to repeat in Egypt what took place in Syria and Iraq.
“It is now necessary to say that the security forces are not able to eliminate the militants’ presence in the city of Al-Arish, so the rapid and immediate interference from the army is now vital to keep safety within the city,” a source from the Diocese of North Sinai concluded.
On a regular basis, Coptic citizens inside North Sinai are being subjected to kidnapping by militants and are brutally killed. The main goal of these operations is to force Coptic citizens in Al-Arish to leave, member of parliament representing Al-Arish Hossam El Refaay told Daily News Egypt previously.
El Refaay asserted to Daily News Egypt on Wednesday that the kidnappings conducted by “Sinai Province” target both Coptic and Muslim citizens, adding that these operations are furthermore aiming to create sectarian strife between Muslims and Copts in North Sinai.
On the other hand, Thabet disagreed with such argument, saying that “the IS affiliated group of ‘Sinai Province’ is not aiming to create sectarian strife as promoted, but instead it targets the full displacement of Copts not only from the Sinai Peninsula, but also from all parts of Egypt.”
“What’s happening in Sinai is a first step, nobody knows what will follow,” Thabet added.
Since 2013, state security forces, represented by both the army and police, have been engaged in violent clashes with “Sinai Province,” known previously as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. In 2014, the group declared its affiliation to IS and has launched deadly attacks on army and police checkpoints.
Over the course of the last two years, the Egyptian Armed Forces launched counterattacks against militant stationing points across the Sinai Peninsula where the group is based, particularly in the cities of Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah, and Al-Arish.
Some names were removed for the sake of the safety of sources.