Some fled with little more than the clothes they were wearing, terrified that the militants of Islamic State would come for them next.
For a fourth day on Sunday, Coptic Christians – one of Egypt’s most vulnerable minorities – sought safe haven after a series of sectarian killings in and near the town of Arish, in Egypt’s rugged Sinai Peninsula.
Some 95 families have arrived in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, 120 kilometres east of Cairo, church officials said. Frightened, hungry and tired, they are being sheltered in private homes and – belatedly – at government accommodation.
“There were many killings and threats of further violence,” said Kirollos Ibrahim, a priest at the Coptic Church of Ismailia, which has aided the displaced. “God has helped us, and we are finding brothers and sisters to stand by us.”
Some of those who fled Arish said Muslim neighbours had helped shield them from “terrorists”, hiding them in their homes or helping them find other shelter.
“I was too scared to sleep, and spent the night at my Muslim friends’,” said a housewife who asked to be identified only as Umm Mina, or mother of Mina, because she was afraid of being targeted for further violence.
“They insisted. They said: ‘We’ll take you in; anything that happens to you happens to us’.”
Umm Mina, who had lived in Arish for 17 years, said the militants “kill the men and leave the children. Then they burn the house, so they make sure we have nothing to go back to”.
She and others said the extremists – sometimes masked and driving pick-up trucks flying Islamic State’s black flag – distributed threatening pamphlets in Coptic areas of the town. The terrorists seemed to have detailed information about Coptic families, including men’s names and home addresses, she said.
The latest attack on the beleaguered Coptic minority has raised questions as to whether the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is doing enough to protect them. Copts were targeted in a devastating Christmas-season bombing of a major church in Cairo.
Some of the displaced said they thought the government was doing its best to help. But a teacher named Maher, who said an uncle and a cousin were killed last week by militants, said he believed the security forces had been infiltrated by extremists.
The slain men, whom he identified as Saad Hakim and his son Medhat Saad, had lived less than 500 metresfrom a security checkpoint, the teacher said, but militants killed the pair and then ransacked the house, looting valuables such as home appliances. His relatives’ bodies were burnt, he said.
“There is simply no security,” Maher added, asking that his last name not be used because he feared for his life.
Youssef Shokry, another priest at Ismailia’s Coptic church, said donations of cash and supplies such as mattresses and cooking utensils were helping authorities cope with the influx – at least for the moment. For the longer term, he is uncertain.
“Some families have said they will never return; others say they do want to go back home once it’s safe,” the priest said. “We still don’t know what will happen.”
After initial difficulties in finding accommodation, some of the fleeing families were sheltering at a former youth hostel in Ismailia, an arrangement brokered by Christian leaders and a government ministry. Two doctors were offering medical services, and clerics from other Christian denominations arrived in a show of solidarity.
The northern Sinai Peninsula has long been the scene of a simmering Islamist insurgency, but IS fighters have dramatically raised the level of violence in the last three years. The militants consider Sinai to be one of the group’s self-proclaimed “provinces”.
The Copts of Arish have been terrorised by a series of brazen killings – at least seven in recent weeks. The latest victim was a plumber who was shot dead in his family home Thursday as helpless relatives looked on.
IS has not issued a claim of responsibility for the killings, but it released a video last week saying that Copts – whom it regards as infidels – would be targeted. The group claimed responsibility for December’s Cairo church bombing.
Previously, IS militants had focused their attacks on military installations and security forces.
Coptic Christians, thought to make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population, were officially protected under the rule of president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted six years ago. When democratically elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a 2013 coup, many of his followers believed the Copts had colluded in his downfall, and launched a concerted campaign of revenge attacks.
Egypt’s indigenous Copts are one of Christianity’s oldest branches, dating back to the first century. But they have long suffered from persecution and discrimination.
Some of those who fled the violence in Arish said they hoped to return, but did not know when it would be safe to do so. A native of Arish nicknamed Umm Marmar said they feared Ismailia was already overburdened by those who had fled as she and her family did.
“The city’s infrastructure cannot contain all these families,” she said. “And more are on the way.”