Coptic Christians are fleeing the northern Sinai Peninsula in droves amid violent attacks by ISIS' local affiliate.

Seven Christians were killed in el-Arish between 30 January and 23 February, all in attacks claimed by Sinai Province, an ISIS affiliate operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Five individuals were shot, one was beheaded, and another set on fire. According to church officials, 100 families out of roughly 160 in north Sinai, along with more than 200 students studying in el-Arish, are seeking refuge in the neighbouring city of Ismailia.

The north-eastern region of the Sinai Peninsula has been a militant hotspot for several years, peppered with violent attacks and threats from Sinai Province, which affiliated with ISIS in November 2014. Residents of el-Arish are no strangers to peril, but recent events have led the Coptic community to feel particularly targeted.  

Sinai Province has previously focused on security forces at checkpoints, as well as civilians without a stated religion. From October to December 2016, according to the Global Extremism Monitor, the majority of attacks in the Sinai Peninsula by ISIS’ affiliate were against security forces, with 39 deaths in at least 8 individual incidents. In the same period and geographical area, 21 civilians were killed and not one victim was reported as Coptic Christian. Having said that, on 19 November 2016, ISIS targeted what it mistakenly believed to be two priests, and later found out were leading religious figures from among Bedouin living in the peninsula.

Most of ISIS' attacks in the Sinai Peninsula have been against security forces, with 39 deaths in at least eight incidents from October to December.

However, in tandem with its recent attacks on Copts, the group released an anti-Copt video on Sunday 19 February threatening the country’s Christians and vowing to escalate a campaign against them. Residents in el-Arish said militants have circulated death lists online and in the streets, pressuring Christians to leave the area or die. While there is no single reason for the increased focus on Christians in the region, the coordination of the attacks, video, and the circulated lists make it appear to be strategically implemented. 

These messages follow the bombing in December last year of a chapel adjoining Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic papacy. The attack killed 28 people, mostly women and children. This attack, well outside the Peninsula, shows the group’s capacity for devastation as well as its focus on Christians, although it does not seem to have stopped its attacks on security forces in the meantime.

Targeting of Coptic Christians – who comprise 10 per cent of Egypt’s population and are the largest Christian community in the Middle East – by Islamist extremist groups is not a new phenomenon. ISIS adheres to an interpretation of sharia law that is hostile towards anyone that does not agree with its worldview. Non-Muslim ‘people of the book,’ namely Jews and Christians, who permanently reside in ISIS controlled territory must pay a protection tax, known as jizyah. Thistheoretically grants them special status and safety, but more often than not, we see stories of persecution, mistreatment, and beheading.

ISIS’ brutality towards Christians has occurred from the moment it declared a caliphate in Iraq in 2014. When the group first captured Mosul, there was a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq’s Nineveh province. Following this, there has been regular brutality towards Christians and other minorities by the group’s supporters and members. This violence is regularly justified in ISIS propaganda with a rhetoric that frames the Western intervention in Syria as a Christian ‘crusade’ and a ‘war on Islam’.

In response to the recent attacks in Sinai province, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held a meeting instructed his government to “completely eradicate terrorism in northern Sinai and defeat any attempts to target civilians or to undermine the unity of the national fabric.” While north Sinai’s deputy police chief, Major General Mostafa al-Razaz, said security forces were capable of handling the crisis, Sinai’s Christians say the region is overwhelmed by militants and under-protected. Sisi has also ordered the government to take all necessary measures to resettle the Christians who have fled.