Fearing sectarian violence at hands of the Muslim extremists, Christian Copts in the Egypt’s North Sinai town of Rafah are being forced to flee their homes.
At least a dozen Coptic families have already left the town bordering Gaza and Israel, seeking safety in the nearby town of Al Arish, a local priest told state-owned Al Ahram newspaper. The latest Coptic exodus was triggered by an armed attack on a shop owned by a Christian town-dweller, he said.
Two days earlier, fliers had been found outside Christian homes warning residents to "leave or face death." While the attack by masked gunmen did not cause any injuries, it has succeeded in terrorizing the town's small Christian community.
Christian families who met last week with the newly appointed North Sinai governor Sayed Harhour to express their grievances said the governor had promised to increase security in the town but stopped short of offering the Copts direct protection.
The violence is not the first of its kind in Rafah. The town's only church, "The Holy Family Church," has come under several attacks from militants since it was torched and looted in February 2011, as mass protests were taking place in Tahrir Square.
The Sinai Peninsula has witnessed a surge in violence since the January, 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak .
The subsequent rise of Islamists to power in Egypt has fuelled Christian concerns that their safety may be compromised and their freedom restricted under Islamist rule. Rights activists say the latest attack on Copts is a litmus test for Islamist President Mohamed Morsi who has promised an "inclusive Egypt" where all citizens enjoy equal rights.
Copts have experienced some of the worst violence since the January 2011 uprising, including the torching of churches, the violent military assault on Coptic protesters at Maspero last October and forced evacuations of Copts from the towns of Dahshur and Amreya. Tens of thousands of Copts have left Egypt to settle abroad since March 2011 out of concern for their safety, according to a report by the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights.
The recent anti-Islam video on Youtube has escalated fears of further attacks on Egypt's Christians after the clip - reportedly produced by Egyptian Christians living in the United States - provoked angry protests in Cairo and other Muslim capitals.
Despite Coptic Christians joining the Cairo demonstrations to express their solidarity with the Muslim protesters, many Christians are fearful of a backlash from radical Muslims.
The recent arrest and detention of Alber Saber, a young Christian -turned-atheist, on a charge of insulting religion after he posted the inflammatory video on Facebook has only fuelled such fears. Rights activists have decried Saber’s arrest, questioning why a Salafist TV presenter who showed parts of the video on his show (sparking the violent protests in Cairo and Alexandria ) had not been detained despite several lawsuits filed against him.
Another Christian, Michel Bishoy, was sentenced to six years in prison last week for blasphemy after posting pictures on Facebook deemed offensive to Islam's revered Prophet Muhammad.
President Morsi has condemned the latest violence in Rafah saying he "categorically rejects the displacement of any citizen from any part of the country."
Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali affirmed that "forced evacuations are unacceptable and all Egyptians are entitled to protection." He repeated earlier statements by the President that there would be no discrimination of any kind -"neither against women nor Copts," he said.
Prime Minister Hisham Qandil has meanwhile denied that Copts have been forcibly evacuated from Rafah, saying that only one Coptic family had decided to relocate. In statements to the state-run Middle East News Agency, he affirmed that President Morsi had given directives to the North Sinai governor to provide protection for Coptic residents in the town.
Despite such assurances, many Copts remain skeptical. Rights groups have said they are closely monitoring the situation in Sinai. The National Council for Human Rights has warned of "dire consequences if Christians' lives are at risk," adding that it would be "a dangerous precedent in Egypt, taking the country back to the dark ages."
In the meantime, Egypt's Coptic Christians who were subjected to discrimination and marginalization under Mubarak's rule now face an uncertain future.
"It is up to the new Islamist government to show it is serious about ending the discriminatory policies of the past. We have heard a lot of promises, " said Bassant Moussa of the "Copts United" public group. "Only action will allay our fears."
Shahira Amin is an Egyptian journalist, the former deputy head of Egyptian state-owned Nile TV and one of its senior anchors.
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