Coptic Christians are fleeing Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in unprecedented numbers.
In the last few days, more than 100 families have left their homes for the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, 125 miles west.
The reason: On February 19, the Egypt chapter of ISIS released a video calling Copts “our priority and our preferred prey.” Three days later, one man was shot and his adult son burned alive. Other killings followed.
As families flee, a Protestant church is there to receive them.
“We were the first to respond,” said Atef Samy, associate pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo. “Two of those killed were very dear to our church.”
“This is sheer terrorism,” he said. “They want to embarrass the government and claim they can cleanse the Christian presence.”
In recent weeks, seven Copts have been killed. Witnesses say they were murdered in cold blood, with no negotiation, theft, or attempts to convert to Islam.
Hit lists are also reportedly being circulated, warning Christians to leave or die.
“I am not going to wait for death,” Rami Mina, who left Arish on Friday morning, told Reuters. “I shut down my restaurant and got out of there. These people are ruthless.”
Samy declined to name those killed, but identified them as born-again Christians active in ministry. His church quickly mobilized to help others leave, and provided support to the Ismailia church that has assisted dozens. Mattresses, blankets, food, and medical supplies are the most pressing needs.
Adel Shukrallah, responsible for youth ministry in the Evangelical Church of Ismailia, is heading the Protestant relief effort locally. Four compounds have been prepared to provide immediate shelter, while 28 families have been settled in furnished apartments rented by the church.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ordered the government to take all necessary measures to provide assistance. Many families have been housed in local youth hostels, with food and supplies given by the state. A stipend has been authorized, and children are being processed to attend school immediately.
But Shukrallah said much burden still falls on the churches. Some have complained of mismanagement and opportunistic scams.
So Protestants have interacted with both state and Orthodox church officials to better coordinate the chaotic situation. Eva Boutros has led the effort to establish a joint central committee and storehouse to ensure accountability of donations. Kasr el-Dobara and the Orthodox diocese of Ismailia have opened the two official accounts.
“They accepted my advice by God’s grace,” Boutros said with a voice cracking from exhaustion, “and we will all work together in unity.”
One Orthodox church has given lodging to 20 families and another to 10, said a local priest who requested anonymity. Staying up past 1 a.m. every night, he has also interacted with many Muslims who have been generous with donations.
“During times of crisis, the true character of Egypt shows itself, while terrorism has neither religion nor god,” he said, noting the ongoing murder of Muslims, military, and police as well.
“They want to see Egypt become like Syria, and make an Islamic emirate without Christians or churches.”
Many aid caravans have arrived already, from the Nile Delta to Upper Egypt. But for Zoe Alexander, a trainer with the social service center of Our Savior Anglican Church in Suez, some churches have a special burden from God.
Over the past few years, she has been a part of prayer gatherings linking the canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez.
“Many of us have sensed that the canal cities would become cities of refuge and safety,” she said. “This would be a major reversal from their history as places of war and bloodshed that people have fled from.”
The 70 families of her church sent food and medicine sufficient for 20 families over two weeks. But they also hear Ismailia will soon be overwhelmed if refugees increase. Their welcome may be required as the next city south.
“As tragic as these events are, I’m struck by the fact our God has gone before and prepared a safe place for these people,” she said. “I don’t think it is a coincidence that the church they fled to has been one of the centers of our prayer gatherings.”
Meanwhile, Shukrallah has been able to offer Bibles, youth counseling, and other support to the fleeing families.
“We have an open forum to serve God in meeting the spiritual needs of the people, not only the physical,” he said. “We have to encourage them and love them, and the children especially are afraid.”
Many of the adults, however, are angry. The Orthodox priest said families wonder why they are being treated this way, though they are sons of the land. Shukrallah’s colleague Michel Antoune blamed the government.
“The state allowed hate speech to flourish, and over time that has turned into action,” he toldThe New York Times. “This is the natural result of state indifference.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has speculated that the whole episode is a church-state conspiracy. And some opposition political figures accused the government of gaining legitimacy from the Coptic issue without providing sufficient protection.
But one local pastor saw instead a need to rally behind Egypt’s president. He has attempted to link families with support networks in Cairo, and says they declined as the state is providing the necessary help.
The pastor requested anonymity, fearful of terrorist targeting. Two years ago, his nephew and his Muslim colleague in the army were seized from a military canteen and killed the same day.
“I have no relation to politics, I am a man of religion,” he said. “But Sisi is the best president we have ever had. He deserves our support.”
Politics aside, many families wonder where God is in their suffering. Some who have fled are more than 70 years old, and many of the families are poor.
In 2012, Orthodox Bishop Cosman stated there were 740 Christian families in his North Sinai diocese. Reuters reported church officials stating there were now only 160, prior to the exodus.
Shukrallah has no answers, but wishes to offer hope and encourage trust.
“God has permitted this, so we want to see his will fulfilled,” he said. “We don’t know what that is, but we are sure it is something good.”
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