Hundreds of Christians have fled the city of el-Arish in Egypt after a spate of attacks by suspected Islamic militants.
A priest told the Associated Press that he and some 1,000 other Christians had fled for fear of being targeted next. He blamed lax security, saying: “You feel like this is all meant to force us to leave our homes. We became like refugees.”
It was earlier reported that militants had shot dead a Coptic Christian man, Kamel Youssef, in front of his wife and daughter. The account had been given by two officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
A priest in the city said militants then kidnapped and stabbed his daughter before dumping her body near a police station. It wasn’t immediately possible to confirm his account.
No militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack but earlier this week Egypt’s Islamic State group affiliate, which is based in the Sinai Peninsula, vowed in a video to step up attacks against the embattled Christian minority. A spate of killings by suspected militants have spread fears among the Coptic community in el-Arish as families left their homes after reportedly receiving threats on their mobile phones.
A day before Youssef’s killings, militants killed a Coptic Christian man and burned his son alive, then dumped their bodies on a roadside in el-Arish. Three others Christians in Sinai were killed earlier, either in drive-by shooting or with militants storming their homes and shops.
The Coptic Church has made no official comment on the spate of murders.
Coptic Christians, who make up 10 per cent of Egypt’s population, have increasingly come under attack since the military’s overthrow of elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. A top target of Islamic extremists throughout the years, the Christians heavily supported the army-chief-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and his security crackdown on Islamists since Morsi’s removal.
The priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said a total of 30 Christians — including Coptic soldiers — have been killed since then, including two priests.
The northern region of Sinai, bordering Gaza Strip and Israel, has been a battleground between the military and Islamic militants since 2011 when the region sank into lawlessness during the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
Since then, there have been waves of Christian displacement. The first one was from the town of Rafah when the only church, the Holy Family, was looted, torched and destroyed in several militant attacks. The church is built on the site where Christians believe the Holy Family first stopped to rest after crossing into Egypt. Subsequent waves followed militants’ threats in past years. According to the priest, less than 1,000 remain.
El-Sissi declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in the volatile region in 2014 in the aftermath of deadly suicide bombings that killed over 30 soldiers. Blaming the stepped-up militancy on Gaza’s ruling Hamas group, which uses underground tunnels for smuggling contraband, the Egyptian military razed hundreds of houses in the border area to create a buffer zone and stop what it described as the infiltration of extremists from Gaza.
Since 2013, Islamic militants have carried out several suicide bombings across Egypt, mainly against the police and the army. However, in December, an IS-affiliated suicide bomber blew himself up inside a landmark Cairo church, killing around 30 worshippers, mostly women.
That attack marked a turning point in the Sunni militant group’s strategy as Christians became its top targets. The extremists have used Christians’ support for el-Sissi as a pretext to increase attacks against them.
The Islamic State group’s video, released on Monday, showed the bomber behind the December church attack and described the Christians as “infidels” who are empowering the West against Muslim nations.