Mariam’s son was murdered inside the supermarket he owned in El Arish, the northern Sinai city that has seen seven attacks against Coptic Christians in less than three weeks. As nearly 200 families take refuge in the city of Ismailia, Valentina Primo speaks to one of the martyrs’ mothers.
“They killed him. They murdered him inside his supermarket; and after they shot him, they opened the fridge, took a can of Pepsi and sat there to eat chips,” says Mariam* as she recalls the gruesome murder of her son by extremist militants.
It was January 30th when three masked men entered her son’s supermarket in the North Sinai city of El Arish. Before they shot him, the militants expelled his wife, who was pregnant with their third child. “There were four men; one of the was waiting on the street, another one in front of the store, and two stayed inside the shop, where they assassinated him. They shot six bullets,” she says pointing to her wrists, her heart, and her back. “They then cut the light for 10 minutes, and left. They killed him.” she recalls, sitting at the Anglican Church of Ismailia, where nearly 200 Christian families have sought refuge in the last two weeks.
“No one did anything. It was at 8:30 PM when they came, and there is a commercial bank right in front of the shop guarded by security staff, but they didn’t open fire or do anything. They are afraid of the machine guns; what can you do in front of men holding machine guns? Now my son is lost,” says Mariam.
Her son Wael was one of at least seven Egyptian Coptic Christians killed in less than three weeks in El Arish, a town in the north of Sinai. In February, ISIS released a video threatening to carry out attacks against Christians in Egypt, describing them as "infidels" who are empowering the West against Muslim nations.
“After Wael, they killed many more. They are burning our homes and cremating dead people,” says Mariam, referring to the Christian minority population in El Arish, estimated at about 1,000. “They killed him because he is Christian; they shot a bullet into his wrist, which still hasn’t come out of his arm. He was buried with that bullet in his arm. They shot him in his heart, they shot his chest, his side, his leg; they ripped him apart,” she says.
Alone, unassisted and fearing for her life, the 59-year-old woman took a taxi and fled El Arish with nothing but the clothes she was wearing and a headscarf, which she used to disguise herself as a Muslim. “I put on a veil in order for them not to see that I am Christian; they warned that any driver taking a Christian person out of the city would be attacked. In fact, when there are cars transporting materials from the church, they write ‘we will burn the car and the driver on them,” she explains.
Inside the church in Ismailia, some families receive meals in dishes, as volunteers distribute milk, tea, and coffee to newcomers, who are then relocated to a government-run youth hostel and residential houses. At the center of its courtyard, some armchairs, couches and wooden furniture pile up. “At the beginning, we thought it was four or five families, so I told them to bring their furniture along,” says one of the church’s volunteers, who requested his identity remained anonymous. “But the following day, I started receiving calls telling me there were more and more families coming. It started small and got bigger, and we don’t know how it is going to continue. It is a big mess because there are many transit areas and no common plan,” he says.
Hundreds of Christian families however remain in El Arish, secluded in their homes, unable to work or go out in fear of attacks. “They publish a list of the names of all the Christians and whenever someone dies, they cross his name out,” Mariam says. "Then it’s your turn on the list.”
120 km away from Ismailia, in Cairo, Wael’s wife is about to go into labor. “He was a very kind person; everyone liked him,” says Mariam as she remembers her late son. “Muslims liked him even more than Christians. In fact, Muslims cried for him. Muslims came to his funeral and cried for him,” she laments. “These people [ISIS] are devils. It’s tyranny, it’s something very, very difficult. They cannot be described; they have no heart, no feelings. They are savages, they cannot be considered humans.”
According to a report by Amnesty International, attacks against the Egyptian Coptic Christian religious minority have escalated since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Coptic churches and homes have been set on fire, members of the Coptic minority have been physically attacked, and their property has been looted. Several violent incidents against Christians have been reported in Upper Egypt, particularly in Minya, over the past year.
“I saw this coming, because Sinai is a hotspot and was extremely violent, even before 2011,” says Mina Thabet, advocate for religious freedoms at the Cairo-based Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. The activist adds that since 2011, between 13 and 14 Egyptian Christians were killed for their religion.
“Egyptian governments have failed to tackle a longstanding pattern of discrimination against Copts and rising incidences of sectarian violence,” says the Amnesty International report. “Instead of prosecuting those behind such violent attacks, the Egyptian government has continued to rely on state-sponsored reconciliation agreements, which in some cases have involved forcibly evicting Coptic Christians from areas where they are under threat.”
According to Thabet, the Egyptian authorities “need to review their strategy” to counter terrorism. “In the long term, if we don’t stop this phenomenon and these ideas, we will have more problems. We should take this very seriously.”
“What disturbs me is that they want to turn it into a political struggle between supporters of the regime and opponents. Our state, community, our people are in danger. I don’t think we can solve if we don’t look at it this way,” he says.
*In order to protect the interviewee’s privacy, her name has been changed.
Video and photography by @MO4Network’s MO4Productions.
Photographer: Mohamed Atef
Video and editing: Federico Corno