Hundreds of Coptic Christians have fled from northern Sinai, Egypt after a series of killings carried out by so-called Islamic State (IS). SAT-7 programmes covered the crisis in its current affairs and worship broadcasts as at least 118 Christian families fled the coastal city of El-Arish.
The murders of seven Christians over four weeks triggered an exodus of most of the Christian community from El-Arish. They hastily packed their bags and persuaded fearful taxi drivers (who also received terrorist threats) to take them 125 miles west to Ismailiya. Here, the Coptic Orthodox and Evangelical churches are helping the refugees find shelter and the government has made hostel accommodation available.
Ezzat Afifi, pastor of the Evangelical Church in Ismailiya told SAT-7’s Bridges programme his church has given temporary housing to a dozen families. He described them as being “in a state of fear and shock”:
“Each and every one of them received direct death threats… Many families lost their loved ones, cousins, relatives and friends by killing.”
SAT-7’s Bridges current affairs programme covered the crisis twice, first in its regular Saturday broadcast (25 February) and, after further interviews, in a special edition on Tuesday night (28 February). Other programmes, including worship from Cairo’s Kasr El Dobara Evangelical Church and a special edition of SAT-7’s live worship show Keep on Singing featured impassioned, impromptu prayer for the situation.
Since army activity against jihadists was stepped up in 2013, Sinai has seen numerous attacks on security personnel. Christians, too, have lived in fear and faced threats and attacks. One priest, speaking anonymously, said that 30, including soldiers, had been killed.
Upsurge of violence
But there has been an upsurge of violence against Christian civilians since 31 January. Victims have been knifed or gunned down by hooded men breaking into their homes. A video released by IS affiliates on 19 February spread further fear when it called for the targeting of ‘infidel’ Christians in Egypt.
“They threw death threat fliers at our houses threatening to kill us if we didn’t leave in 24 hours.”
Wiping tears from his eyes, Gamal Aziz, told SAT-7 that militants “threw death threat fliers at our houses threatening to kill us if we didn’t leave in 24 hours.”
“When we heard that people were getting killed we immediately packed our clothes and left at 10 pm on the same day,” Gamal’s wife added.
Nabila Fawzy Hanna saw both her son and husband murdered in front of her. IS militants stormed her home, shooting her son and then her husband in the head. After they had looted the house, the attackers set it alight and burned it to the ground along with the bodies of the victims.
She told the Bridges programme, ““My neighbours are Muslims and we are in good relations but they couldn’t help us when they heard the gunshots because they know that the terrorists kill young men and they have young men in the family.”
She said the police came after the house was had been burnt to the ground. “I spent the night at the police station praying all night to God because I have no one left but Him to take care of me.”
Another refugee, named Shehata, described how he escaped the militants earlier in the month (16 February) when they gunned down a teacher, Gamal Tawfiq, from their motorbike.
“They came to the Thursday market and shot Gamal the teacher. They tried to kill both of us and they managed to kill him, but I escaped leaving a stock of floor mats that I sell that cost me more than 12,000 Egyptian pounds.” Shehata then hid at his home for 11 days before leaving Arish.
“There are many Christian families there under siege… too scared to flee”
While the families who have fled the area have left almost all their belongings, Mrs Aziz told Bridges that she feared for those who were left. “There are many Christian families there under siege. They are too scared to flee because some drivers are too scared to give them a ride out of Arish because IS members threatened to kill the drivers if they give Christians a ride. Our driver was afraid too and he covered his face so they don’t recognize him.”
Mr and Mrs Aziz described a mood of fear in the area. Despite government promises of security, they said, “There is no security there at all. Many times we’ve called the police and they told us that they needed to protect themselves first in order to protect us.”
SAT-7 Arabic Channels Director, George Makeen, agreed that Christians had no choice but to flee from El-Arish. “The police themselves are afraid”, he said, and threats “have been translated into action”.
Makeen stressed that the killing spree was not an attack on Christians alone but on Egyptian society at large. He said Christians are targeted because they are a vulnerable community: “IS want to destroy the country so they aim for the weakest”.
Egypt’s Christians would only be safe, he said, when the country has an “active security system that can protect all people and a free society that lets people think for themselves and reforms teachings that encourage persecution.”