The largest community of Christians in the Middle East is in the crosshairs of the Islamic State.
Recently an Islamic State video was released with a call for the targeting of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt, which included the testimony of a suicide bomber who struck a church in the cathedral compound in Cairo in December that killed 29 worshipers — mostly women and children.
Now a string of killings of Coptic Christians in the regional capital of Sinai, Arish, has hundreds fleeing to Ismailia on the western bank of the Suez Canal in the face of a terror campaign intended to religiously cleanse Sinai.
Two Christian men, a father and son, were kidnapped and killed in Arish, with the son reportedly burned alive.
Another Coptic man was gunned down in his home in front of his family a day later — the third murder targeting the Christian community in Arish in recent days — and then their house was burned down.
Many have now taken refuge in the Evangelical Church in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya.
The Coptic Church has condemned the attacks, saying they were aimed at “dividing” Egyptians.
The Copts – who make up about 10% of the country’s 90 million population – have often been targeted by Islamists in recent years.
Most of the Islamist militant attacks in recent years have been focused on the Sinai Peninsula, where an IS-linked jihadist group is active, but the capital Cairo has also suffered a string of attacks in the past two years.
‘Scared of our shadows’
About 250 Christians with their belongings were now in Ismailiya’s church, deacon Nabil Shukrallah said.
“They’ve come running with their children. It’s a very difficult situation. We’re expecting 50 or 60 more,” he told the AFP news agency.
Meanwhile, refugees said they were now “scared of our shadows,” adding that they “are being targeted in an ugly way.”
Many of them were from the city of El-Arish, where at least seven Christians have been killed.
Egypt has seen a wave of attacks by militants since 2013 when the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi, an elected leader who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood and launched a crackdown against Islamists.
Some of Mr. Morsi’s supporters blamed Christians for supporting the overthrow.
In December, a bomb explosion in the Coptic Christian cathedral in killed at least 25 people.
What is the Coptic Christian faith?
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian Church in Egypt. While most Copts live in Egypt, the Church has about a million members outside the country.
Copts believe that their Church dates back to around 50 AD when the Apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt. Mark is regarded as the first Pope of Alexandria – the head of their church.
This makes it one of the earliest Christian groups outside the Holy Land.
The Church separated from other Christian denominations at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in a dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ.
The early Church suffered persecution under the Roman Empire, and there were intermittent persecutions after Egypt became a Muslim country. Many believe that this persecution continues to this day.