(By Ian Lee and Sarah Sirgany, CNN, Ismailia, Egypt) “Are you a Christian?” These were the last words 45-year-old Medhat Saad Hakim heard before he was shot in the head on his doorstep last month.
The gunmen dragged Hakim’s screaming mother outside the house before going back inside and shooting his father dead. The attackers then looted the house before torching it. His mother, Nabila Halim, survived the attack.
Medhat Saad and Saad Hakim are the sixth and seventh Christians killed in the North Sinai town of Al-Arish in just over a month — all targeted by Al Wilayat Sinai, a local affiliate of ISIS waging a low-level insurgency on the peninsula.
The two killings, followed by another killing 48 hours later, prompted Christian residents to flee the coastal town.
Over 500 Christians from Al-Arish have arrived to the city of Ismailia, 200 km away, since the Hakims were attacked on February 21. The Coptic Orthodox Church said an unspecified number of families fled to other provinces across Egypt. It is unclear how many others are left behind.
Egypt’s Christians make up 10% of the population, according to researchers and rights groups; they are the largest minority in the Middle East. Official statistics from the government are not available as it tries to brush aside accusations of discrimination and rooted sectarianism.
In numerous villages across Egypt, deadly disputes between Muslim and Christian neighbors have routinely ended with the forced evacuation of the Christian community — crimes committed during the disputes largely go unpunished.
But the violence in Al-Arish is different.
“Cases of sectarian violence usually have a trigger, like building a church or (interfaith) affairs, but this is targeted violence solely because they are Christian,” explained Ishak Ibrabim, the freedom of faith officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“The state should realize that this could escalate beyond geographical boundaries and become unpredictable in scope and timing.”