A year ago, Christians were facing large-scale attacks from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, from Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and from Al Shabaab in Northern Kenya. It is now becoming clear that new frontlines are beginning to open up elsewhere in the jihadists’ attempts to religiously cleanse whole areas of non-Muslims. One of those is Egypt.
Over the past week, the Egyptian military has been engaged in serious fighting with Islamic State in Sinai, the group which (as Barnabas Fund reported in March) told 200 Christian families to leave the town of Al Arish or be killed. However, it is not just Sinai province, the triangular wedge of land that sits at the end of the Red Sea between Africa and the rest of the Middle East. Jihadists are also targeting Christians elsewhere in Egypt, as we saw at the end of May when IS-linked jihadists killed 28 Christians travelling to a remote monastery in Minya province, approximately 250 miles south of Cairo.
In fact, Islamic State (IS) now has two separate groups, one in Sinai and one in the rest of Egypt. In an interview with IS’s Rumiyah (“Rome”) magazine in May, the group’s leader in Egypt indicated that attacking Christians and churches was a specific part of their strategy, asserting that it is permissible to shed even the blood of Christian women and children. He claimed that, “targeting these churches with ruin and destruction is a matter that is permitted in the sharia, and it is allowed to use this as a means of attaining closeness to Allah”.
This is exactly what we saw earlier in Iraq, where a wave of church bombings and targeted attacks on Christians began in 2004, leading to a disproportionate exodus of Christians relative to the population as a whole. The same thing has been happening in Northern Nigeria since 2006, when Boko Haram began a wave of attacks on churches and Christians which led to many Christians fleeing the North. Just as Boko Haram has made clear that it wants to see the whole of Nigeria become an Islamic state with sharia enforcement, so jihadists in Egypt are making clear that they have all of Egypt within their sights.
However, one small ray of hope in the midst of this darkness is that, in the interview with Rumiyah, IS’ leader in Egypt admitted that the wave of attacks on Christians in Egypt was largely failing to persuade Egyptian Muslims to adopt jihadi ideology. He conceded that the “prevailing trend in many people’s reactions is that of denunciation, as well as disassociation from these operations in specific [sic], and from the war on the Christians”.
He went on to complain that many Egyptians offer “condolences” to Christians “on account of what befalls them, under the claim of national brotherhood”. He argued that instead, Christians should be regarded as being outside “of the religion”, by which he appeared to mean that Christians should be treated as dhimmis, i.e. only allowed to live if they submit to the humiliating conditions imposed on them by sharia.