Egypt's Christians are the largest minority group in the country
Al Wilayat Sinai, a local affiliate of ISIS, appears to be targeting Christian families in the North Sinai peninsula
“Are you a Christian?”
These were the last words 45-year-old Medhat Saad Hakim heard before he was shot in the head on his doorstep last month.
The gunmen dragged Hakim’s screaming mother outside the house before going back inside and shooting his father dead. The attackers then looted the house before torching it. His mother, Nabila Halim, survived the attack.
Medhat Saad and Saad Hakim are the sixth and seventh Christians killed in the North Sinai town of Al-Arish in just over a month — all targeted by Al Wilayat Sinai, a local affiliate of ISIS waging a low-level insurgency on the peninsula.
The two killings, followed by another killing 48 hours later, prompted Christian residents to flee the coastal town.
Over 500 Christians from Al-Arish have arrived to the city of Ismailia, 200 km away, since the Hakims were attacked on February 21. The Coptic Orthodox Church said an unspecified number of families fled to other provinces across Egypt. It is unclear how many others are left behind.
Egypt’s Christians make up 10% of the population, according to researchers and rights groups; they are the largest minority in the Middle East. Official statistics from the government are not available as it tries to brush aside accusations of discrimination and rooted sectarianism.
In numerous villages across Egypt, deadly disputes between Muslim and Christian neighbors have routinely ended with the forced evacuation of the Christian community – crimes committed during the disputes largely go unpunished.
But the violence in Al-Arish is different.
“Cases of sectarian violence usually have a trigger, like building a church or (interfaith) affairs, but this is targeted violence solely because they are Christian,” explained Ishak Ibrabim, the freedom of faith officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“The state should realize that this could escalate beyond geographical boundaries and become unpredictable in scope and timing.”
The Egyptian army claims it maintains the upper hand in its years-long battle against the terrorists in North Sinai. In February, the Egyptian Armed Forces said it assumed control of a mountain in central Sinai where extremists had once sought refuge.
“At the beginning, we thought it was like any other threat. They would kill one family and then it would calm down,” Magdy, a 64-year-old retired engineer, told CNN in Ismailia. The community got used to attacks six or seven months apart.
“Suddenly, it horrifically intensified. It looked like vengeance. They didn’t just shoot people, but they would shoot and slaughter them or shoot and burn them.”
Magdy, who is not using his real name out of fear of being killed by ISIS, said police told his friends they would not be able to protect them and advised them to leave.
Egypt’s Ministry of Interior denied the accusation in a statement issued when the evacuations began.
Many of those who fled Al-Arish are careful not to criticize the government or the security forces, especially when talking to foreign media.
Speaking to CNN, Nabila Halim’s sister, Nagwa, said that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi would not abandon them. ISIS and other radical Islamist groups blame Egypt’s Christian population for Sisi’s rise to power.
Dozens of churches were torched the night Sisi – flanked by politicians, the Al-Azhar Sheikh and the Coptic Pope – removed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013.
Many of Morsi’s supporters had promoted a sectarian rhetoric. Under Sisi, the official rhetoric changed but the sectarian strife continued.
ISIS had warned of killings
In a video released on February 19, two months after the December bombing of a Cairo church that killed 29 people, ISIS said the bombing would be followed by many more.
“You are our first target and favorite prey,” it said referring to Christians.
It called upon followers to target Christians everywhere and ruin their lives.
At a beachfront government hostel in Ismailia used to house the fleeing citizens, a plainclothes policeman quietly advised the elderly citizens resting on plastic chairs and the journalists hovering around them not to criticize the government or the security agencies.
“The government initially ignored this crisis completely. Then they acknowledged it but got into the futile argument of how to label it,” Ishaq Ibrahim told CNN.
“Then when pictures of the fleeing families emerged, the government was forced to step in when the churches were unable to deal with the increasing numbers.”
The government has provided fleeing Christians with housing and living supplies.
Government officials promised salaries to the Christian state employees and to enroll students in schools and universities closer to their new homes.
“This (incident) is being used to spread fear and fright, to cast doubt on the (state’s) role, and imply that no one protected them,” Sisi said in a televised speech. The state has been in war for 40 months, he said.
At the Ismailia hostel, a cleric from the Coptic Orthodox Church played down the crisis, intent like other officials not to label it as displacement or evacuation.
“People shouldn’t have left,” priest Azmi Arian told CNN, suggesting that the fears were exaggerated.
‘We fear for our lives’
But those coming from Al-Arish said they had no other choice.
“Point me to someone who could live the way we did. Kids don’t go to school. Our husbands can’t go to work. We fear for our lives,” said a woman holding her four-month-old baby wrapped in blankets, declining to give her name.
“They would slaughter us if we go back.”
Nabila Halim, whose son and husband were killed, said that if her house was not turned to dust in the insurgent attack that left her husband and son dead she would have stayed in Al-Arish.
She has no pictures of either of them left. Everything was lost in the house they built together 17 years ago.
She describes to us the last time she saw her son.
“I went inside as the house was burning. The fire had moved to his entire body, up to his face. There was no hair on his head,” she said.
“The fire burnt his clothes; he was naked and torched.”
The only picture left of her son is in her sister’s house in Al-Arish – a city she might never see again.