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?”


US downgrades Palestinian mission, places it under embassy in Israel

Updated 12 min 29 sec ago
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US downgrades Palestinian mission, places it under embassy in Israel

  • The move will make the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, the main interlocutor with the Palestinian leadership
  • Pro-Israel advocates hailed the decision, saying it confirmed the US recognized the whole of Jerusalem as part of Israel

WASHINGTON: The United States downgraded its main diplomatic mission to the Palestinians on Thursday, placing it under the authority of the US embassy to Israel.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the consulate general, a separate office which handled dealings with the Palestinians, would be replaced by a new Palestinian Affairs Unit inside the controversial new US embassy in Jerusalem.
The move will make the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who is reviled by Palestinians over his support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the main interlocutor with the Palestinian leadership.
The change, quickly condemned by the Palestinians, follows a series of setbacks for them at the hands of President Donald Trump, who has turned US policy sharply toward Israel.
Pro-Israel advocates hailed the decision, saying it confirmed the US recognized the whole of Jerusalem as part of Israel.
“This decision is driven by our global efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations. It does not signal a change of US policy,” Pompeo said in a statement.
He said the United States “continues to take no position” on how any peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians would take shape.
The Palestinian leadership rejected Pompeo’s “efficiency” explanation.
The decision has “a lot to do with pleasing an ideological US team that is willing to disband the foundations of American foreign policy, and of the international system, in order to reward Israeli violations and crimes,” the Palestinians’ chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
“The Trump administration is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he added.
International powers have for decades maintained separate and autonomous representations to Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of supporting the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.
They have insisted that the status of Jerusalem, which both the Israelis and Palestinians see as their capital, should be negotiated between the parties as part of any end deal.
Last December, Trump reversed longstanding US policy and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, prompting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to boycott his administration.
The embassy was officially transferred on May 14.
Since then, the Trump administration has forced the Palestinians to shutter their Washington mission and has slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, in a bid to force them to the negotiating table.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, alongside Friedman and peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, has been working for months on a still-secret peace proposal, which Palestinians fear will be overly one-sided toward Israel.
The move Thursday nearly closes off all direct diplomatic contacts between the United States and the Palestinians, analysts said.
Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the US would be the only major power without a separate, independent representative office for the Palestinians.
“Other countries have gone to great lengths to avoid having the same representatives to Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he told AFP.
Robert Danin, a former senior US government official dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issues, said the move was a victory for “hard right partisans” who have sought to eliminate the Palestinian-focused consulate general “for decades.”
The consulate general “is THE eyes and ears into Palestinian politics and society. Its independence from US Embassy Israel provided Washington w/solid, unvarnished reporting and analysis,” he said on Twitter.
But Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor with the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum and advocate for the embassy move, said the decision was more evidence the US considered Jerusalem to be fully part of Israel.
“This step confirms that the US recognizes the entire city as Israel’s capital,” he said.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert defended the move, saying the new Palestinian Affairs Unit inside the embassy would maintain contacts with Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem at the same level as before the change.
“We value our relationship with the Palestinian people. We look forward to continued partnership and dialogue with them and, we hope in future, with the Palestinian leadership,” she said via Twitter.