Pope to visit Egypt as Copts face Islamic State campaign

A woman stands inside a Christian souvenir shop ahead of Pope Francis’ visit in Cairo, Egypt April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

April 28, 2017

By Amina Ismail

ISMAILIA, Egypt (Reuters) – Karam Nassif fled his home in Egypt’s North Sinai this year after his name appeared on a Christian hit-list circulated by Islamic State. Fearing for their safety after this month’s twin church bombings, his family now wants to leave the country.

“You’ve seen what happened in Tanta and Alexandria and Cairo,” his wife Mervat said, referring to church attacks that have killed more than 70 people since December. “I feel that there is no hope for us at all, we have been smashed.”

Pope Francis flies to Cairo on Friday on a mission to mend ties with Islamic religious leaders angered by his predecessor’s criticism of the treatment of Christians in Egypt.

But his visit comes as Egypt’s Copts, the Middle East’s largest Christian community and one of its oldest, face the worst persecution in living memory at the hands of Islamic State militants, who have threatened to wipe them out.

The militants, who carry out regular attacks on Egyptian security forces in North Sinai, turned their guns on Christians in December, seeking to fuel sectarian hatreds.

Two church bombings killed at least 45 people on Palm Sunday, when Christians gather to celebrate Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. A suicide bomber killed 28 people at Egypt’s main cathedral before Christmas and an Islamic State campaign of murders in North Sinai prompted hundreds of Christians, including Nassif and his family, to flee in February and March.

The attacks have raised fears among Copts, who comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 92 million, that they will face the same fate as their brethren in Iraq and Syria, where Christian communities have been decimated by lengthy wars and Islamic State persecution.

Egypt’s Copts are among the most vocal supporters of President Fattah al-Sisi, who has vowed to crush Islamist extremism and protect Christians and declared a three-month state of emergency in the aftermath of the Palm Sunday bombings.

But many Christians feel the state either does not take their plight seriously enough or is unable to protect them against determined fanatics.

KNOCK ON THE DOOR

In February, Islamic State militants came knocking on Nassif’s door. The family was out at the time, but fearing for their lives after Islamic State shot dead their Christian neighbor and his son and set his home ablaze, they fled the area, leaving everything behind.

The family of five now lives in a rented flat provided by the church in the city of Ismailia, which sits on the west bank of the Suez Canal, about 200 km from their home in North Sinai.

Desperate, Nassif and his wife have even discussed setting sail on one of the rickety boats that takes migrants illegally from the North African shore to the relative safety of Europe.

“In both cases it is…

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