“Are you a Christian?”
But the violence in Al-Arish is different.
“Cases of sectarian violence usually have a trigger, like building a church or (interfaith) affairs, but this is targeted violence solely because they are Christian,” explained Ishak Ibrabim, the freedom of faith officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“The state should realize that this could escalate beyond geographical boundaries and become unpredictable in scope and timing.”
The Egyptian army claims it maintains the upper hand in its years-long battle against the terrorists in North Sinai. In February, the Egyptian Armed Forces said it assumed control of a mountain in central Sinai where extremists had once sought refuge.
“At the beginning, we thought it was like any other threat. They would kill one family and then it would calm down,” Magdy, a 64-year-old retired engineer, told CNN in Ismailia. The community got used to attacks six or seven months apart.
“Suddenly, it horrifically intensified. It looked like vengeance. They didn’t just shoot people, but they would shoot and slaughter them or shoot and burn them.”
Magdy, who is not using his real name out of fear of being killed by ISIS, said police told his friends they would not be able to protect them and advised them to leave.
Egypt’s Ministry of Interior denied the accusation in a statement issued when the evacuations began.
Many of those who fled Al-Arish are careful not to criticize the government or the security forces, especially when talking to foreign media.
Speaking to CNN, Nabila Halim’s sister, Nagwa, said that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi would not abandon them. ISIS and other radical Islamist groups blame Egypt’s Christian population for Sisi’s rise to power.
Dozens of churches were torched the night Sisi — flanked by politicians, the Al-Azhar Sheikh and the Coptic Pope — removed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013.
Many of Morsi’s supporters had promoted a sectarian rhetoric. Under Sisi, the official rhetoric changed but the sectarian strife continued.
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Ian Lee and Sarah Sirgany