Sinai offensive helping reduce Egypt attacks but Copts still targeted

The pilgrims killed over the weekend were the second group attacked travelling to the same monastery

epaselect epa07138317 Relatives of the victims, who were killed by gunmen during an ambush while travelling in three busses carrying Coptic Christians to a remote desert monastery in Egypt's southern Minya province, react during their funeral in Sawada village, near Minya, Egypt, 03 November 2018. According to media reports quoting Egyptian officials, at least seven people were killed in the incident and 19 others were injured. A local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, media added.  EPA/ALY FAHIM
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Attacks on Egypt’s long rooted Copts

Egypt’s Copts belong to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, with Mark the Evangelist credited with founding their church around 300 AD. Orthodox Christians account for the overwhelming majority of Christians in Egypt, with the rest mainly made up of Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans.

The community accounts for some 10 per cent of Egypt’s 100 million people, with the largest concentrations of Christians found in Cairo, Alexandria and the provinces of Minya and Assiut south of Cairo.

Egypt’s Christians have had a somewhat turbulent history in the Muslim majority Arab nation, with the community occasionally suffering outright persecution but generally living in peace with their Muslim compatriots. But radical Muslims who have first emerged in the 1970s have whipped up anti-Christian sentiments, something that has, in turn, led to an upsurge in attacks against their places of worship, church-linked facilities as well as their businesses and homes.

More recently, ISIS has vowed to go after the Christians, claiming responsibility for a series of attacks against churches packed with worshippers starting December 2016.

The discrimination many Christians complain about and the shift towards religious conservatism by many Egyptian Muslims over the last 50 years have forced hundreds of thousands of Christians to migrate, starting new lives in growing communities in places as far afield as Australia, Canada and the United States.

Here is a look at major attacks against Egypt's Coptic Christians in recent years:

November 2: Masked gunmen riding pickup trucks opened fire on three buses carrying pilgrims to the remote desert monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor south of Cairo, killing 7 and wounding about 20. IS claimed responsibility for the attack.

May 26, 2017: Masked militants riding in three all-terrain cars open fire on a bus carrying pilgrims on their way to the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor, killing 29 and wounding 22. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

April 2017: Twin attacks by suicide bombers hit churches in the coastal city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta. At least 43 people are killed and scores of worshippers injured in the Palm Sunday attack, which narrowly missed a ceremony presided over by Pope Tawadros II, spiritual leader of Egypt Orthodox Copts, in Alexandria's St. Mark's Cathedral. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.

February 2017: Hundreds of Egyptian Christians flee their homes in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, fearing attacks by ISIS. The group's North Sinai affiliate had killed at least seven Coptic Christians in the restive peninsula in less than a month.

December 2016: A bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt's main Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo kills 30 people and wounds dozens during Sunday Mass in one of the deadliest attacks carried out against the religious minority in recent memory. ISIS claimed responsibility.

July 2016: Pope Tawadros II says that since 2013 there were 37 sectarian attacks on Christians in Egypt, nearly one incident a month. A Muslim mob stabs to death a 27-year-old Coptic Christian man, Fam Khalaf, in the central city of Minya over a personal feud.

May 2016: A Muslim mob ransacks and torches seven Christian homes in Minya after rumours spread that a Christian man had an affair with a Muslim woman. The elderly mother of the Christian man was stripped naked and dragged through a street by the mob.

New Year's Eve 2011: A bomb explodes in a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria as worshippers leave after a midnight mass, killing more than 20 people.

The latest attack on Egyptian Christians – a deadly ambush of three buses carrying pilgrims to a remote desert monastery south of Cairo – showcased the tenacity of Islamic militants as well as the bravado they have shown by attacking the same spot for the second time in as many years.

The latest attack left seven people dead – including six members of a single family – and wounded 19 others. Claimed by the extremist ISIS, it was the latest in a string of attacks targeting Christians dating back to December 2016. Those attacks, which targeted churches packed with worshippers in Cairo and two other cities north of the capital, were claimed by ISIS and left more than 100 people dead.

But experts have said that there are signs that battlefield successes made by security forces since the start of an all-out offensive this year against militants in the Sinai Peninsula, the epicentre of a long-simmering insurgency, had helped reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.

Although the death toll from Friday’s attack was considerably smaller than the last time the same stretch of road was hit in May 2017, killing 29 people, it took on added significance because it laid bare a level of negligence by the police for allowing militants to strike the same target, pilgrims on their way to the St Samuel the Confessor Monastery, for a second time.

That was widely interpreted to mean that security measures introduced following last year’s attack on the road leading to the monastery may have been insufficient or measures became lax as time went by. Some Christians complained that police stopped providing armed escorts for pilgrims’ buses as they did in the immediate aftermath of last year’s attack.

There has been no official reaction to such criticism, but security officials with first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Interior Ministry, which runs the police, said an investigation was underway to identify and discipline those responsible for security in Minya.

“There are difficulties involved in securing monasteries in the desert,” said Maher Farghaly, an expert on Islamic militant groups. “The landscape of Minya and other regions south of Cairo pose a particular challenge because they are linked to Libya through several dirt roads that are impossible to fully secure,” he said, alluding to assertions by authorities that Libya-based militant groups plot attacks and send militants and weapons across the porous desert border into Egypt to carry them out.

ISIS has vowed to go after Egypt’s Christians, in part as punishment for the church’s support of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi who, as defence minister, led the military’s 2013 intervention to remove an Islamist president amid mass protests against his one-year divisive rule. The attacks against Christians have led to tighter security for Christian places of worship and church-linked facilities, like metal detectors at their street gates and armed guards.

But providing air-tight security for a community that numbers around 10 million and spread across the entire country is virtually impossible, but striking the militants at their strongholds in northern Sinai remains the most effective way to reduce their capability to strike back.

Since the emergence of militant groups in Sinai, the security forces have succeeded in denying them control over any significant territory as they once commanded across Syria and Iraq. More recently, they have had the militants on the run in northern Sinai, thanks to a full-fledged offensive that began shortly after militants killed 305 worshippers in a northern Sinai mosque a year ago in what became Egypt’s worst terrorist attack in modern history.

“It is my belief that the full-out offensive has achieved many successes and broke the back of the ISIS [in Egypt],” said Ahmed Ban, another expert on Islamic militant groups. “It is no longer capable of staging high-profile attacks against police and army bases as it used to.”

To achieve that success, the military has thrown tanks, fighting vehicles, fighter jets, warships and helicopter gunships along with tens of thousands of soldiers and police at the extremists in northern Sinai, which has been under emergency law for several years.

Security forces also have evacuated areas adjacent to the border with Gaza, razing houses and farmlands to deny the militants a place to hide. They also have blown up underground tunnels that authorities believe the extremists used to smuggle weapons and fighters in from neighbouring Gaza, ruled by Hamas.

Still, the fight is far from over, according to Mr Farghaly, the expert on Islamic militants.

“This will be with us for a little longer,” he said. “It is about what we do in Egypt as much as other countries do, like offering extremists safe havens and funds.”

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Read more: 

Seven killed in Egypt as gunmen open fire on bus carrying Coptic Christians

Egypt's ancient Coptic community rattled by bishop murder saga 

Angry Copts mourn Egypt bus attack victims

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Attacks on Egypt’s long rooted Copts

Egypt’s Copts belong to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, with Mark the Evangelist credited with founding their church around 300 AD. Orthodox Christians account for the overwhelming majority of Christians in Egypt, with the rest mainly made up of Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans.

The community accounts for some 10 per cent of Egypt’s 100 million people, with the largest concentrations of Christians found in Cairo, Alexandria and the provinces of Minya and Assiut south of Cairo.

Egypt’s Christians have had a somewhat turbulent history in the Muslim majority Arab nation, with the community occasionally suffering outright persecution but generally living in peace with their Muslim compatriots. But radical Muslims who have first emerged in the 1970s have whipped up anti-Christian sentiments, something that has, in turn, led to an upsurge in attacks against their places of worship, church-linked facilities as well as their businesses and homes.

More recently, ISIS has vowed to go after the Christians, claiming responsibility for a series of attacks against churches packed with worshippers starting December 2016.

The discrimination many Christians complain about and the shift towards religious conservatism by many Egyptian Muslims over the last 50 years have forced hundreds of thousands of Christians to migrate, starting new lives in growing communities in places as far afield as Australia, Canada and the United States.

Here is a look at major attacks against Egypt's Coptic Christians in recent years:

November 2: Masked gunmen riding pickup trucks opened fire on three buses carrying pilgrims to the remote desert monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor south of Cairo, killing 7 and wounding about 20. IS claimed responsibility for the attack.

May 26, 2017: Masked militants riding in three all-terrain cars open fire on a bus carrying pilgrims on their way to the Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor, killing 29 and wounding 22. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.

April 2017: Twin attacks by suicide bombers hit churches in the coastal city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta. At least 43 people are killed and scores of worshippers injured in the Palm Sunday attack, which narrowly missed a ceremony presided over by Pope Tawadros II, spiritual leader of Egypt Orthodox Copts, in Alexandria's St. Mark's Cathedral. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.

February 2017: Hundreds of Egyptian Christians flee their homes in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, fearing attacks by ISIS. The group's North Sinai affiliate had killed at least seven Coptic Christians in the restive peninsula in less than a month.

December 2016: A bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt's main Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo kills 30 people and wounds dozens during Sunday Mass in one of the deadliest attacks carried out against the religious minority in recent memory. ISIS claimed responsibility.

July 2016: Pope Tawadros II says that since 2013 there were 37 sectarian attacks on Christians in Egypt, nearly one incident a month. A Muslim mob stabs to death a 27-year-old Coptic Christian man, Fam Khalaf, in the central city of Minya over a personal feud.

May 2016: A Muslim mob ransacks and torches seven Christian homes in Minya after rumours spread that a Christian man had an affair with a Muslim woman. The elderly mother of the Christian man was stripped naked and dragged through a street by the mob.

New Year's Eve 2011: A bomb explodes in a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria as worshippers leave after a midnight mass, killing more than 20 people.

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