Test for Egypt as Christians under attack from Daesh, Muslim neighbors flee

Christian families who left Arish in North Sinai after the escalation of a Daesh campaign arrive at the Evangelical Church in Ismailia. (Reuters)
Updated 04 March 2017
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Test for Egypt as Christians under attack from Daesh, Muslim neighbors flee

ISMAILIA: When Daesh militants began circulating names of Christians who must leave their Egyptian hometown of Arish or die, Munir Munir’s father Adel, a civil servant, brought home a hit list that had his own name as number two.
The first person on the list, shopkeeper Wael Youssef, was killed on Jan. 30. The Munirs barricaded themselves inside their house “like rats in a hole,” Munir Munir recalled last week.
Within a month, four more Christians in the town had been shot dead, one beheaded and another burned to death. After the seventh killing, the Munirs finally fled. Their father insisted on staying behind.
A shift in Daesh’s tactics from attacking soldiers and police to targeting Christian civilians has become a potential turning point in a country trying to halt a provincial insurgency from spiraling into wider sectarian bloodshed.
Daesh’s branch in Egypt, which has waged a low-level conflict for years by attacking security forces mostly in the Munirs’ native North Sinai province, has issued a new message inciting attacks on Christians across Egypt.
The militants’ aim, say analysts, is to weaken President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi by sowing the kind of sectarian chaos that has fueled lengthy conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
During the killing wave of the past month, about 145 families have fled North Sinai to Ismailia, a city on the edge of the Suez Canal that forms the western boundary of Sinai, and about 30 to Cairo. Others have made their way to other provinces, church officials and human rights groups say.
Several families, including the Munirs, told Reuters that Muslim neighbors unaffiliated to Daesh have stepped up assaults against them, emboldened by the militants and the violence that has destabilized their province and seen hundreds of soldiers and police killed in recent years.
“Our neighbors took our land because we are Christian. They tried to attack me and my sister and when my father came to defend us they sprayed his face with acid,” said Munir Munir’s sister Dimiana as she huddled with four family members in a churchyard, waiting for volunteers to find them a new home.
The families gathered forlornly at Ismailia’s Evangelical Church around sacks overspilling with the clothes they managed to bring before they fled. Women wailed over lost homes and children ran around oblivious as volunteers brought in blankets and made calls seeking to secure shelter.
Copts comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, the biggest Christian minority in the Middle East.
The violence is unlike previous waves of sectarian attacks in Egypt, because there is no longer any pretense of a reason, beyond killing Christians for their faith, said Ishak Ibrahim, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“What we are seeing here is new. There has always been violence against Christians but it was usually for a ‘reason’ like land disputes. Now Christians are killed just for being Christians,” he said.
“Militants are sending the government a message; saying they can change part of the country’s demographics. This is a dangerous precedent,” he said. “And who knows if it will be replicated in Upper Egypt or elsewhere.”
Sameh Kamel had just made it out of North Sinai with his wife and two children when his neighbor phoned. Daesh militants had come knocking on their door just an hour after the family had packed their bags and fled.
“They’re knocking on doors and if they find a Christian they kill him,” said Kamel.
The opening salvo came in December, when a Daesh fighter bombed a church adjoining Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic papacy, killing 28 people. The militants threatened all Egyptian Christians in a video in February.
The flight of the North Sinai Coptic families poses a challenge for El-Sisi, who promised to restore security in a US ally seen as a bulwark against extremism.
El-Sisi, whose ouster of President Mohammed Mursi in 2013 sparked an escalation in the Sinai insurgency, has sought to assure Egyptians that security forces would preserve national unity. He ordered the government to help resettle displaced Christians and met with top officials to discuss how to respond.
The Interior Ministry said on Wednesday it “possessed all the capabilities, will, and desire” to protect citizens. But those who fled do not believe the state is able to save them.
“The police and army cannot do anything; they cannot even protect themselves,” said Munir Munir.
“Of course we will not go back to Arish. Go back to die?”


In Bahrain, US to launch economic part of Mideast peace plan amid skepticism

Updated 31 min 45 sec ago
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In Bahrain, US to launch economic part of Mideast peace plan amid skepticism

  • Two-day meeting billed as the first part of Washington’s long-delayed blueprint to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process
  • But neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event

MANAMA/JERUSALEM: The first stage of President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan will be launched on Tuesday at a conference the White House touts as a bid to begin drumming up $50 billion in investment but which Palestinians deride as an “economy first” approach doomed to fail.
The two-day international meeting in Bahrain, led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s long-delayed broader political blueprint to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which will be unveiled at a later date.
But neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in the Bahraini capital, Manama.
There will be close scrutiny as to whether attendees such as Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Arab states show any interest in making actual donations to a US plan that has already elicited bitter criticism from Palestinians and many others in the Arab world.
Bahrain, a close American ally and home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been making preparations for weeks.
Although the conference is supposed to focus on economics, Gulf Arab states hope their presence will also show their solidarity with the Trump administration over its hard-line against Iran, a senior Gulf diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Under the plan, donor nations and investors would contribute about $50 billion over 10 years, with $28 billion going to the Palestinian territories — the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip — as well as $7.5 billion to Jordan, $9 billion to Egypt and $6 billion for Lebanon.
Among 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects is a $5 billion transport corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.
“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘deal of the century,’” Kushner told Reuters, referring to the lofty nickname that Trump’s peace plan has assumed over the past two years.
“This is going to be the ‘opportunity of the century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”
Kushner, a senior Trump adviser who like his father-in-law comes from the world of New York real estate, is presenting his plan in a pair of pamphlets filled with graphs and statistics that resemble an investment prospectus.
But pushing back against critics who accuse Kushner of trying to forge a strictly “economic peace,” he told Reuters last week: “A lot of past attempts have failed. Calm down ... and keep an open mind.”
Even so, expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes that the economic plan — billed “Peace to Prosperity” — will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.
Any such solution would have to settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, satisfying Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory Palestinians want to build that state.
The Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel normal ties with the Arab world in exchange for a Palestinian state drawn along borders that predate Israel’s capture of territory in a 1967 war and a fair solution for Palestinian refugees. Israel has rejected some of the initiative’s main provisions.
Hanging over the entire initiative are persistent questions about whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution,” a long-standing principle of Middle East peacemaking that involves creation of an independent Palestinian state.
But the Trump team has consistently refused to commit to it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, has his own domestic problems, facing an election, and possible corruption charges after a long-running police investigation. He denies any wrongdoing.
“We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. Although no Israeli government ministers will attend, an Israeli business delegation is expected.
Palestinian leaders have boycotted the workshop, and are refusing to engage with the White House — accusing it of pro-Israel bias after a series of recent Trump decisions. Kushner told Reuters that “some” Palestinian businessmen would be present.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.
“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important,” he said.
Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, has found itself in rare agreement with its arch-rival Abbas. “The Palestinian people only and no one else can represent the Palestinian cause,” Hamas official Mushir Al-Masri said.
Kushner insists, however, that the economic plan is intended to help draw Palestinians back to the negotiating table by showcasing the benefits a peace deal could bring.
Kushner said that even without the Israeli and Palestinian governments represented, the presence of Israeli business executives and journalists with their Arab counterparts would be significant at a time of rising tensions with Iran.
“People realize that the real threat to that region is Iran and their aggression, and Israel and a lot of the other Arab states have a lot more in common today than they did before,” he said.
David Makovsky, a Washington-based Middle East expert, agreed that although the principal focus of the event was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Iran is higher on the chain of interest right now.”
However, Makovsky, whom the White House has invited as an observer, said of the Trump-Kushner plan: “No one believes you can solve this thing economically without addressing the political issues.”