North Sinai Bishop Father Quzman claims Coptic Christians in Arish are “not besieged” and can move relatively freely, contrary to stories from Copts themselves and recent media reports.
Quzman’s statement, published on the Coptic Orthodox Church spokesperson’s Facebook page on Sunday, claimed Copts in Arish are able to conduct daily prayers and to move freely under the protection of security forces in the area. Security is being restored and some Coptic Christians that left have been able to visit, the bishop added, warning media outlets that they should ensure their information is accurate before publishing.
Dozens of Coptic families were displaced from Arish in February after a string of targeted attacks by armed militants. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Omar Arafa says the number of Coptic families displaced or relocated to Ismailia, Qalyubiya, Assiut and Cairo is as high as 118.
The situation in Sinai is not as stable as the bishop claims, however, according to Mina Thabet, researcher on minorities and religious freedoms at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “There are no indications that the security situation has changed in Arish, despite church statements mentioning the restoration of security and the return of families,” Thabet says, asking how the church can issue such reassurances when the state has not yet confirmed the situation.
“According to the information available to us, none of the families have returned, nor will any of them be able to for the time being,” Thabet adds.
A Christian business owner, who was displaced from Arish and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says the conditions for those who have been displaced are deteriorating in the absence of genuine state support, which he claims has been focussed primarily on displaced families in Ismailia, where the majority are currently living.
Some of those who were relocated to other governorates have turned to the Orthodox Church and Social Solidarity Ministry, he says, but they have seen little in the way of results, and state officials have largely advised Copts to move to Ismailia. Even then, some families in Ismailia are unable to register with the Social Solidarity Ministry, and therefore cannot receive government assistance.
The ministry provided those in Cairo with small one-off payments of LE850 for families of two, and LE1,200 for families consisting of three or more members, the source explains. Displaced Copts are also unable to use their ration cards or health insurance cards in Cairo, as they are registered as residents of Arish.
“The state is facing growing anger, even from among Copts living abroad”
Ishaq Ibrahim, a religious freedoms researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, also says he has no knowledge of Coptic families returning to Arish. “There are families that have not left their homes in Arish, mostly residents of the Dahiya neighbourhood, where the security directorate is located,” he says, adding that this area is sealed off by checkpoints and roadblocks. The local church and Father Quzman’s residence are there, he explains.
“The area in which the church is located is very safe. There are four pastors in Arish, who are also residents of the Dahiya area, but I do not think there are any church services or Christians in any other areas,” he says, adding that another of Arish’s churches, located in the Massayid neighborhood, was burned down after the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in on August 14, 2013. Although the church was being restored and renovated, this ground to a halt following the recent spate of targeted attacks across Arish, he explains. “So how can there be church services?”
Mada Masr received a statement in English attributed to Ismailia Bishop Father Seraphim, thanking President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for his concern regarding the plight of Coptic families displaced from Arish. The bishop thanked Sisi, the governor of Ismailia and the chairperson of the Suez Canal Authority for assisting with the resettlement of families in Ismailia and for “providing all necessary means of comfort,” including furnished apartments, health care and social care for over 180 families.
Mada Masr contacted the spokesperson for the Ismailia diocese, Pastor Dawoud Naguib, to comment on this statement, but he was unavailable at the time of publishing.
“Similar statements were issued by Ismailia diocese in Arabic. Perhaps this was merely a translation of such a statement,” Ibrahim speculates, adding that it is unusual for church statements to be translated to English, except under special conditions or circumstances, but perhaps this is for the benefit of non-Egyptian readers and Copts living overseas.
The Coptic Orthodox Church, specifically the deputy to the Coptic pope in Washington DC, is seeking to mobilize Copts to rally in support of Sisi in the US during Sisi’s scheduled meetings with US President Donald Trump in early April.
“The state is facing growing anger, even from among Copts living abroad,” Ibrahim says. This might explain the church’s attempts to placate Christians and direct their anger away from the state.