Hundreds of Egyptian Coptic Christian families have fled their homes in the northern Sinai Peninsula since late February, fearing for their lives in the wake of seven murders between January 30 and February 23.
No group claimed responsibility for the killings, but families who abandoned the city of al-Arish for Ismailia west of the Suez Canal told Egyptian rights activists that these attacks -- carried out by armed masked men in unmarked vehicles -- fit the pattern of those claimed by Islamic State (also known as ISIS). On February 19, ISIS released a video featuring the suicide bomber who claimed responsibility for the December attack on an annex to Cairo's St. Mark's Cathedral that killed 29 worshippers.
Violence between Muslims and Christians is not new to Egypt. Historically, in areas like Minya and Assiut, which have large Coptic populations, violence erupts when personal feuds get out of hand or Muslim crowds respond violently to Christian construction (or reconstruction) of churches. In July and August 2013, Islamists torched and looted Christian buildings in response to perceived support by Coptic Christian clerical leaders for the overthrow of Mohamed Morsy, Egypt's first democratically elected president and a Muslim Brotherhood leader.
The recent attacks in al-Arish -- and earlier killings there and in northern Sinai towns such as Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayd -- are not communal, or provoked by a particular incident. Gunmen targeted Christians apparently not for who they were -- a veterinary surgeon, pharmacist, teacher, shoe merchant -- but apparently to frighten the small Christian communities to flee en masse. And in the context of protracted fighting between Egyptian security forces and ISIS, to demonstrate Egypt's incapacity to protect lives and property.
Several families told Egyptian rights activists that they fled only after the "apathetic" response from Egyptian security officials. They say they want to return to their homes but are skeptical this will be possible.
Egyptian journalists and rights activists say some local families have opened their homes to the al-Arish families, and as many as 100 other al-Arish families are in Port Said and cities further west. Local Ministry of Social Solidarity and Coptic Church officials are coordinating relief efforts, the activists say, but a government promise to make five apartment buildings available remains unfulfilled.
The message from the displaced families is that Egyptian authorities need to respond to their calls for protection and provide people with adequate shelter.