CAIRO, Egypt (Morning Star News) – Christians in two villages in North Sinai, Egypt have fled for their lives after a priest was gunned down and a Christian businessman was abducted and killed, his decapitated body dumped onto a street.
On Thursday (July 11) the body of Christian businessman Magdy Lamei was found in the town of Sheikh Zuwayed. Suspected members of an unidentified Islamic extremist militant group had kidnapped him on July 6, and he was thought to have been killed on the first day of Ramadan, which in Egypt began on Wednesday (July 10).
At first glance, the abduction seemed to be just another of the kidnappings that have unsettled the area. But Yousef Soubhy, a Coptic Orthodox priest formerly in Rafah, said investigations indicated that wasn’t the case. The suspected militants purposely targeted a Christian leader, he said.
“He was a committed Christian, and he used to serve in the church, and he was active in his prayers and his ministry – he used to open his home for prayers,” Soubhy told Morning Star News. “It was obvious they didn’t kill him for the money.”
Soubhy said that when Lamei was killed, negotiations with the militants were still underway, and the ransom demand of 300,000 Egyptian pounds (US$42,545) was close to being collected.
“They didn’t wait for the money, they just killed him,” Soubhy said. “They killed him to terrorize the Christians.”
The grisly killing of Lamei and the lethal shooting of the Rev. Mina Aboud Sharubim, a Coptic priest, in Arish on July 6, were the final factors depleting three villages of Christians who have suffered months of attacks, threats and harassment. All Christians in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed have left, as have most of the Christians of Arish, sources said.
Some of those who left the three towns took only what they could carry and abandoned everything else; others said they hope to return once things cool down.
Fadiya Abdel Sayed, her husband and their three children left Rafah on Tuesday (July 9) to move back to their hometown of Assuit. They left with 13 other Christian families, broken and fearful over the killing of Sharubim in Arish.
“A lot of our neighbors had some of their family members that got kidnapped, and others were shot at,” Sayed told Morning Star News. “I left my work and property, and my husband left his trade and everything to come to our hometown until things calm down.”
There were about 130 Christian families that were living in Arish, but most of them have left, Sayed said.
Approximately 5,000 Egyptian Christians reside in Sinai, but the exact number of Copts that were living in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed is difficult to determine. In a recent statement, the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights confirmed that all the Christians had left the two villages.
For years, North Sinai has been a hotbed of Islamic militancy, with one set of brazen attacks following another. Members of militant, Islamic extremist groups – some from the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere, most of them Egyptian – have attacked the North Sinai’s natural gas pipeline to Israel, captured or killed numerous policemen, raided security checkpoints and raided an international peacekeeping base and the regional headquarters of an Egyptian military security unit, among other targets.
The Egyptian Army is engaged in daily fighting with the militants. On Monday (July 15), militants attacked a busload full of factory workers with rocket-propelled grenades, killing one and wounding 17. The army has publicly speculated the attacking forces assumed the bus was full of police.
The militants have also run a campaign of intimidation against Christians in North Sinai. In January and February 2011, the Church of the Holy Family and St. George in Rafah was set on fire, with graffiti on the charred walls declaring the area “…a land of Islam. There is no room for Christians here.” In September 2012, after weeks of receiving threats to leave the area or be killed, several Coptic families fled when a group of militants raked a Christian business in Rafah with gunfire.
“The situation is horrible. It is insecure and unstable,” said Soubhy, now stationed in Arish. “There is a lot of fighting between the army and terrorist groups. We have been receiving a lot of threats, and after the killing of Father Mina and the murder of brother Lamei, who had his head cut off and left on top of his body, the feeling of fear has increased and things have gotten worse for Christians.”
Soubhy said he is unable to return to Rafah because the militants threatened to kill him. Because of Soubhy’s absence and the destruction of the church building there, for two years those wishing to attend services in Rafah have had to travel 45 kilometers (27 miles) to Arish.
On Sunday (July 14), leaders of the North Sinai parish announced that all the churches in the parish, including Arish, would be closed except for a very brief time in the morning.
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