ISTANBUL, Turkey — Hundreds of Christians continue to flood out of the Egyptian town of Al-Arish in northern Sinai after the third Coptic Christian in a week was gunned down on Feb. 23, reportedly by Islamic State-linked militants.
The mass exodus comes after three Coptic Christians were killed in what appears to be the work of militants making good on Islamic State (IS) threats issued on a Feb. 19 video promising to rid the country of “idolaters.” The latest slaying was the seventh killing of a Copt on the Sinai Peninsula in a month.
Reports differ on how Kamel Youssef was killed, but according to the Associated Press, militants stormed his Al-Arish home, then shot and killed him in front of his family. Two days earlier, the body of Saied Hakim, 65, was found Feb. 21 late at night in Al-Arish behind a state-run language school, where he was ambushed and killed by masked gunmen.
Medhat Saied, 45, Hakim’s son, was abducted and burned alive, his body found in the same place as his father’s, according to local media reports.
No one has claimed responsibility for the three killings, but the consensus is that “Wilayat Sinai,” the Sinai Province branch of the Islamic State previously known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, killed the men in a quest to terrorize Christians and push them out of the region.
In the 20-minute video released on Feb. 19, the IS branch vowed to kill all Christians in the Sinai and to “liberate Cairo” from “idolaters.”
“The IS video appeared at a strange time, and the killings happened to confirm their threats,” Safwat Samaan, chairman of Luxor-based human rights group Nation Without Borders, told Morning Star News. “This raises a lot of questions, like who is behind the killing and who is benefiting.”
In the video, a masked speaker clad in camouflage makes his threats clear: “We will chase you. We will put an end to you. You won’t escape from us.”
The video features a recording of the suicide statement of jihadi Abu-Abdullah al-Masri, also known as Mahmoud Shafiq, 22, suspected in the December bombing of the Al-Botroseya Church in Cairo that killed at least 29 people. The IS speaker said the attack was “only the first.”
“There will be more operations in the near future, if God wills it, as you are our first target and our preferred target in our war,” he said.
“You followers of the Cross, you traitors of all ties — know that warriors of the Islamic State are watching you, and our blessed invasion won’t be our last on you. Because what’s coming is worse and hotter than boiling oil, so wait and see, we will be victorious.”
Since Egypt’s 2013 coup, the military-run government has been involved in counter-insurgency operations in the Sinai against members of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups now fighting under the banner of the Islamic State. Military outposts in the Sinai have been the sites of repeated attacks by terrorist groups.
The Egyptian army has had little success making strategic counter attacks or effectively protecting members of the Coptic minority constantly under assault.
A total of six Copts have been killed in Al-Arish, a city of roughly 165,000 people, in less than a month. On Jan. 30, Wa’el Youssef, 35, was shot down at his small grocery store in downtown Al-Arish. The assailants reportedly shot Youssef in broad daylight in front of his wife and one of their two sons.
On Feb. 12, masked militants ambushed another Copt, Bahgat Zakher, 40, as he was driving his car through the southern outskirts of Al-Arish. A group of armed jihadists stopped Zakher then shot him, killing him instantly, according to local media reports.
The third Copt to meet his death at the hands of suspected jihadists in Al-Arish was Adel Shawqy, 57, a day laborer, who was shot on Feb. 13.
On Feb. 16, masked men shot Gamal Girgis, 45, a Coptic schoolteacher and shoe shop owner. They ambushed Girgis while he was tending his shop. The attack happened no more than 220 yards from a heavily defended army post.
The current exodus isn’t the only time Copts have been forced to flee Al-Arish in recent history. In July 2013, Coptic villagers fled Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed and Al-Arish after a priest, Mina Aboud Sharubim, was gunned down, and a Christian businessman, Magdy Lamei, was abducted and killed.