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Christians in Sinai flee as Islamic State affiliate ramps up violence in Egypt

6 July 2015

Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb has declared that the country is in a “state of war” after a car bomb killed a top prosecutor in Cairo on Monday (29 June) and the Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State, known as Sinai Province, attacked several military checkpoints in the country’s North Sinai governorate on Wednesday (1 July). But Christians have been fleeing the region for months, forced out of their homes as jihadist groups accuse them of being involved in the ousting of President Morsi in 2013.

A church in Egypt is destroyed
A church in Egypt is destroyed

Two days after a car bomb killed top prosecutor Hisham Barakat in Cairo, Egypt’s cabinet approved new draft anti-terror legislation on 1 July. Meeting in the Police Academy for security reasons, the cabinet approved draft laws that aim to cut off funding for terrorism and “achieve quick and just deterrence”.

Most Islamist attacks have been in the towns of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah in the Sinai Peninsula. In Sheikh Zuweid, local resident Suleiman al-Sayed said that he saw “five Land Cruisers with masked gunmen waving black flags” on Wednesday (1 July). Militants surrounded the police station and planted bombs all around it. They also seized armoured cars, ammunition and weapons.

The group known as Sinai Province was previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem). Originally inspired by Al-Qaeda, it pledged its allegiance to Islamic State in November 2014 and simultaneously took on a new name.

An official military report says that 17 Egyptian soldiers and over 100 militants were killed in the attacks but other sources put the number of Egyptian military casualties much higher. Some reports indicate that Egyptian soldiers are being held captive and it is uncertain whether civilians have been among those killed.

It is two years since the former army chief, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, ousted Islamist Mohammed Morsi from his presidential office, on 3 July 2013. President al-Sisi has launched a heavy crackdown on Islamist militants, sentencing hundreds to death, including former President Morsi. Earlier this year, he called for a reform of Islamic discourse that could incite violence. In February, he signed counter-terrorism laws that would grant authorities power to ban groups that could incite civil unrest.

While some allege that Islamic State was born out of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and shares a very similar ideology, others point out that although the two groups share a fundamentalist ideology, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does not try to carry out an aggressive violent jihad in the same way as Islamic State.

While Egypt’s Christians have been hopeful that President al-Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups would bring increased security for them, the reality is that jihadist groups continue to plague the Christian community. In February, the (Christian) Copts Coalition in North Sinai released a statement saying that 27 Christian families, mostly from the el-Salam suburb of El-Arish, had been forced to flee the region that month alone.

Christians have been targeted in the region ever since the Muslim Brotherhood urged its followers to believe that Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Church, participated in the ousting of President Morsi in 2013. In what was described as the worst single day of violence against the Egyptian church since the 14th century, scores of churches, Christian institutions, homes and businesses were torched following the break-up of sit-in protests by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters on 14 August 2013.