Muhamed Sabry

Muhamed Sabry

Egypt, Extremism, Featured, Human Rights, Religious Freedom

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Christian life in the Sinai Peninsula has become fragile due to the poor security situation. Religious holidays have been reduced from lavish public gatherings to hasty, private ones. The Police Club in al-Arish, once a frequent home to Christian services and celebrations, has since become a military barracks that civilians avoid for fear of being attacked by militants. Christians can no longer openly wear religious symbols, such as the cross, in North Sinai, and Christian women have taken to wearing the hijab in order to conceal their religious identity.

Until the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the Christians of the Sinai lived in relative peace. By January 29, however -- a few days into the protests -- the church in the border town of Rafah was torched and looted. Since then, prayers have ceased at that church, which was one of the oldest in the Sinai, and the Christians of Rafah now trek to the archdiocese in the Dahiyat al-Salam neighborhood of al-Arish for services. The priest of the Rafah church has likewise gone to live in al-Arish with his family. This archdiocese, along with a church in the al-Masaid neighborhood, has become the sole hope for North Sinai’s small Christian population.

According to Abanoub Girgis, coordinator for the Sinai-based Egypt Copts Coalition, churches are generally only secured on religious holidays, and even on those occasions, the security is lackluster, limited to just an armed personnel carrier, an officer, and some conscripts, who may not be able to repel an attack by armed assailants. Given the circumstances, it has become necessary to increase security in Dahiyat al-Salam and al-Masaid. In Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, local tribesmen and families have declared their readiness to protect Christians. Government officials have responded by making it easier for Christians to move to al-Arish, approximately thirty miles away. A few families have since moved to al-Arish. But for others, the situation is now “hellish” and they prefer to leave the governorate altogether.

In September 2012, under the rule of ousted president Muhammad Morsi, masked men threatened Coptic storeowners in Rafah and ordered them to leave the city in 48 hours. Several days later, armed men fired shots at one of the shops, but no one was injured. On July 6, 2013, Father Mina Aboud Sharobim was shot dead inside his car in al-Arish. Though some believed it was a failed carjacking, it seems more likely to have been motivated by religion. The aftermath of Father Sharobim’s killing reinforced this sectarian interpretation of events: On July 5, a merchant by the name of Magdy Lamei was kidnapped from his home in Sheikh Zuweid. Six days later, on July 12, his decapitated body was found inside the Sheikh Zuweid cemetery.

In June 2014, Wadie Ramsis, a surgeon, was kidnapped in front of his hospital. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of 10 million Egyptian pounds. After negotiations, the ransom was reduced to 1.5 million pounds, which Ramsis’ family paid through an intermediary. On September 15, he was released and he left the Sinai immediately for Cairo. Dr. Ramsis believes that the state must pay more attention to the plight of the Copts. He underscored that they still suffer in several regards, do not completely enjoy their rights, and are being targeted by extremist Islamist groups.

Importantly, the assailants targeting Christians in North Sinai have not limited their attacks to individuals and churches. Bar Grand Show, the only establishment in the area that serves alcohol to its customers, is owned by a Christian. After repeated threats, armed men attacked the bar in May 2013, leaving one person dead: Rami Ahmed, a Muslim worker.

Girgis, of the Egypt Copts Coalition, says that the number of Christian families in North Sinai has dwindled to 650 after the departure of around 200 families over the past year. He attributes the kidnapping of Christians to groups seeking ransom from the families of the victims in order to buy arms – which they then use in their attacks on security forces and Christians alike.

Although a number of Christians have left the Sinai out of fear for their lives and those of their families, many still hope to stay and believe that the situation in the governorate will improve. However, they are disgruntled about the fact that their destroyed churches have not been rebuilt, despite the many promises they have received from the government. Out of North Sinai’s churches, only two in Dahiyat al-Salam and al-Masaid remain, while the rest of the churches in Rafah and al-Arish wither away – not unlike the populations they once served.

Muhamed Sabry is an Egyptian journalist based in the Sinai Peninsula.

(Photo via Copts United