In February, more than 100 Christian families fled the city of Arish in northern Sinai to the Suez Canal city of Ismailia following a series of attacks that killed seven, including a young man who was burnt alive after his father was shot in front of him.
These attacks were not the first in the city, but were seen as the most serious, especially with ISIS posting a video threatening to eliminate the Christian community and labeling Egyptian Christians “infidels” who collaborate with the West against Islam. Although Christians have been trickling out of Arish when ISIS first took hold of the city, this is the first mass migration.
The decision to relocate the Christians of Arish, at times referred to as “forced evacuation,” was met with indignation by many for it was seen as proof of the government’s inability to protect the Christian community.
The attacks were also considered a desperate attempt by a defeated ISIS that sustained major losses at the hands of the Egyptian military. Some even wondered if the attacks really targeted Christians or only used them as a weak link to regain control over the Sinai Peninsula.
However, the Palm Sunday twin bombings, which killed more than 44 people and injured more than a hundred, proved beyond doubt that one, ISIS is as powerful as ever if not more and that they can and operate outside their hideouts in Sinai; and two, Egyptian Christians are becoming much more than the object of a random vengeance spree.
Mokhtar Awad, research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, argues that targeting Christians in Egypt seems to coincide with the sectarian approach ISIS has adopted since its inception. “For months, the Islamic State has been accelerating the import of Iraq-style sectarian tactics to Egypt,” he wrote.
“In doing so, the group hopes to destabilize the Middle East’s most populous country and expand the reach of it’s by now clearly genocidal project for the region’s minorities.”
For Awad, ISIS is obviously placing Egyptian Christians in the same position as Iraqi Shiites, which means “they can be killed indiscriminately and for no reason other than for what they believe.” This is seen by Awad as a radical step when taking into consideration Egypt’s size and the fact that the militant project has so far failed to gain ground in it.
Sectarian strife, he adds, is now ISIS’s way of infiltrating a society that is known for its “relative cohesiveness” as Awad puts it. “SIS hopes that inflaming sectarian strife in Egypt will be the first step in the country’s unraveling.”
Security expert General Mohamed Zaki said that the recent bombings demonstrate ISIS’s desire to inflict maximum pain upon the Christian community, thus increasing the impact of the operations. This, he explained, is done through the choice of time and place.
“They choose churches that have symbolic significance for Christians,” he said.
This particularly applies to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, which stands in the site of the church built by Mark the Evangelist. He is the author of the second gospel who brought Christianity to Egypt and became founder of the church of Alexandria and the first Bishop of Alexandria and is one of Christianity’s most revered martyrs.
“They also choose special days for Christians as was the case with Palm Sunday,” Zaki added.
Those two factors upon which terrorists base their choice, Zaki added, lead to a major third factor - casualties.