Christian Egyptians flee northern Sinai, fearing targeting by radical Islamist militants

Displaced citizens gather in the vicinity of Youth Home Center in the coastal city of Ismailiya. (Photo credit: Nermen Fathy)

President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Monday at the White House. The two will discuss military aid and security. The meeting comes as the Sisi administration battles insurgents in the strategic Sinai peninsula, which connects North Africa to the Middle East. Members of minority religions are fleeing the areas; fearful of attacks carried out by ISIS militants. Among the displaced; hundreds of Coptic Christians. Rami Almeghari has more.

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Shawqi Hafed is a 58-year-old Christian resident of Alareesh, a small coastal town in the Sinai, about 20 miles from the border. Along with his family, the father of two grown sons fled his home after an increase in murders of Christians in recent weeks. Hafed’s three-member family is now taking shelter at a youth center in Ismailiya, about 123 miles to the west.

“I would like to tell you something, all parties concerned have been taking care of us here,” Hafed says. “However, there is no way to compare this concentration camp with my house, back in Alareesh.”

Since mid-February, eight Christian men have been killed in their homes and in the streets of Alareesh. Some were shot dead by masked gunmen; others stabbed in front of their families.

The murders are widely attributed to the Islamic State in Egypt. The militant organization broadcast a video last month threatening the lives of Christians in Sinai. In the same video, ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Cairo church in December, killing 26 men, women and children.

Local officials say more than 150 Christian families, mainly from the Alareesh, have fled their home in recent weeks, most of them coming here to Ismailya.

“We have been able to arrange for five residential buildings with a total of 24 flats in the city, and they will be available in a few days,” says Margeret Aazer, a Christian member of the Egyptian House of Representatives. “We are also in touch Minister of Social Solidarity, as well as the Education Minister, to make sure that no students miss classes.”

Residents of Ismailya, along with public officials and Islamic scholars, express support for the internally displaced religious minority.

Coptic Christians make up and estimated at 10 percent of Egypt’s 92 million largely Muslim population.

Ahmad Foad is a representative of Alazhar Alsharif, the highest and most ancient Islamic institution in Egypt. Foad says that the Alzhar Alsharif has been engaged in preaching efforts that aim to push back extremist ideologies: “We have TV programs on most local stations. We also conduct awareness sessions at local community centers to spread information about moderate Islam. Here in Islamiliya city, we’ve held a number of these events at the Culture Palace.”

Violence in the northern Sinai Peninsula surged in 2013, after Egypt’s military toppled the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Islamic Brotherhood. Since then, armed Islamist factions, including the Ansar Beit Almaqdes and the Islamic State in Sinai, have carried out frequent waves of killings and bombings.

There are no official estimates of how many people have died, but deadly battles between Egyptian security forces and militant fighters are a frequent occurrence – as are terror attacks that claim civilian lives.

“My son got married in the same house, only seven months ago. Can you imagine, he is still a bridegroom?” Hafed asks. “There has been no joy.”

Shawqi Hafed, and others like him who fear radical militants are targeting them based on their Christianity say for now they’ll stay put in Ismailiya, but hope for the day they can return to their home.

For Hafed,  that means a home that he says he’s still paying off:  “To build that house, my wife and I took out a bank loan that we will continue to pay back until our pension comes up.”

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