Girgis* and his family were running errands in Cairo when they heard that three fellow Coptic Christians from their home city of Arish had been killed within a week’s time. They decided it was no longer safe to go back and prepared to settle in Cairo, fearing to return even to collect their personal belongings or close their businesses and sell their assets.
The three deaths represent a worrying development for Copts in North Sinai, who are often the secondary targets of Islamist groups in the area – most prominently Province of Sinai – whose primary efforts are focused on the Egyptian Armed Forces. Local news sources reported the murder of veterinarian Bahgat William, who was shot in the head on February 12 in front of the pharmacy he owns in Arish. Adel Shawky was murdered on the same day in the city’s Samaran neighborhood, and, on February 16, Gamal Tawfik, a teacher and shoe trader, was killed by gunmen in a crowded market in broad daylight.
The murder of William, Shawky and Tawfik was preceded by that of Wael Youssef, a Coptic trader, who was killed in an Arish market at the end of January.
Girgis has become in recent months suspicious of everyone around him and has tried to take certain precautions such as ensuring that his plans are different each day, as he feels he has become a target. “It is a possibility that anyone around me might turn me in to one of the groups, in order to exact revenge, secure their own benefit or for any other reason,” he says.
The nature of Sinai’s tribal social fabric has made some of its people “vigilant against those seen as migrants to the area,” according to Girgis, who says that this includes Copts who primarily come from other governorates. He believes that state negligence and a lack of opportunities in Sinai have driven some in Arish to view minority groups with hostility, as they see them as competing for the limited resources and opportunities available to the city’s people. Others have been driven to support Islamic groups and their aims – which include ideologically motivated attacks on Coptic Christians – by the injustice and mistreatment they face at the hands of security forces, Girgis adds.
A number of the recent attacks are notable for the fact that they have occurred in public view, something Ishaq Ibrahim, the freedom of belief officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) says is a watermark of growing popular support for the Islamic State in the area.
The targeted murder of William, Shawky and Tawfik also coincided with the Province of Sinai’s distribution of pamphlets in the heart of Arish on February 13. The pamphlets presented the Islamist group as one with the city’s people and promised to avenge the deaths of citizens killed during the confrontations between security forces and militants that have been ongoing since 2013. The past few months have seen this conflict, initially centered in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafa, resound with new force in Arish, as there has been an uptick in terrorist attacks that have been met with greater security measures from the state. People in Arish attribute the violence to the fact that militants have infiltrated the city, having arrived alongside those who were displaced from Rafah in 2014.
Despite the intermittent targeted attacks on Copts over the past few years, last week’s events mark a disturbing development, according to Ibrahim. “The fear is that attacks on three Copts in one week indicates an intensification of targeting of Copts, in a way that threatens their lives and will push them to leave.”
The attacks indicate the circle of those in danger has widened, says the researcher, as the Islamist groups had previously only targeted clergy members and Christian traders. Ibrahim believes that the absence of a tribal support network that could offer protection and influence within Sinai society renders religious minorities vulnerable to being targeted.
Girgis says that his family has faced direct threats on two previous occasions. His family members were mentioned by name and received death threats on militia-affiliated websites due to claims that they had financed churches. Although the family reported the incident, the police responded by advising them to temporarily leave the area, which the family eventually did in the absence of any form of protection from authorities.
Two other sources from the area say that restoration work on Mar Girgis Church in Arish has been halted. The church was set fire to and burned down during the series of incidents of arson targeting churches that occurred throughout the country following the deadly dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins in August 2013.
Security forces surround the two other churches in Arish, which are located in the neighborhoods of Dahiya and Masaeed, and threaten to open fire on anyone who approaches, a measure which makes Copts in the city reluctant to visit them.
One of the most prominent incidents of the persecution of Copts in North Sinai over the past few years was the displacement of dozens of Coptic families from Rafah in September 2012, when masked men attacked Coptic-owned shops and houses and distributed written warnings giving them 48 hours to leave.
This was followed by the intermittent targeting of members of the clergy and Coptic citizens. These include the assassination of Father Mina Aboud by gunmen in July 2013, followed by the assassination of Father Rafael Moussa in June 2016, for which Province of Sinai claimed responsibility. Civilians outside of the Church were also targeted, including electronics trader Magdy Lamei, who was found decapitated in Sheikh Zuwayed in November 2013.
* Girgis’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
Translated by Waad Ahmed