On Monday 16 October 2017 a large group of Islamic State jihadists from Islamic State’s Sinai Province attacked an empty church in Egypt’s Northern Sinai province. However, this was not a sign of desperation by IS, which the following day lost its capital Raqqa – it pointed to a more sinister agenda.
On Monday 20 jihadists waving IS flags drove into al Arish in Egypt’s northern Sinai province. The five vehicles split into two groups, one raided the bank, emptying its safe and rigging explosives inside, while the other group attacked security guards outside St George’s Church. Four policemen and three civilians including a child were reported to have been killed, with another 15 injured.
Recently IS have been mounting a whole series of attacks in North Sinai Province in their attempt to wrest control of it from Egypt’s security forces. However, IS’ Sinai Province who mounted the attack would have known for months that the church was empty, with the entire Christian population having fled in response to their threats in March. So, why did IS send a large group of jihadists to mount an attack on an empty church?
When President’ Morsi’s government was deposed by the army in 2013 Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers responded by attacking a large number of churches across Egypt. Islamist have even burnt down tents where Christians met to worship when they could no longer use church buildings. These attacks, which still intermittently continue, were more than just symbolically important. Under Egyptian laws then in force which dated back to the Ottoman Empire, churches could not be built, or rebuilt without the express permission of the head of state.
This reflected the position of Christians under Ottoman rule as dhimmis (i.e. allowed to live as tolerated inferiors no effective legal rights). In practice it was almost impossible for Christians to get permission for a church to be even be repaired, let alone rebuilt. So, destroying a church building was in effect a means of religiously cleansing an area of its Christian population.
However, in January 2016 President al-Sisi announced that the Egyptian army would rebuild churches that had been destroyed by Islamists. This included St George’s Church in al Arish which Islamists had tried to burn down and was now being rebuilt by the army. However, before that could happen Islamic State’s Sinai province began a series of attacks on Christians in al Arish. In June last year IS claimed responsibility for the murder of a Christian leader who was gunned down as he returned home from a church service. A further seven Christians were murdered in the first three months of 2017 while at the same time Islamic State released a propaganda video threatening to “eliminate” Egypt’s Christian population.
In March this year almost all of al Arish’s 200 Christian families fled with not much more than the clothes they were wearing after receiving messages saying: “Leave tomorrow, you Crusaders, or we’ll hang your heads on the top of your houses.” It was the first such exodus of Christians from an Egyptian city in living memory. One Christian who returned in May as he could not find work elsewhere was immediately murdered. This is all part of a pattern of attacks on Christians in Egypt’s Sinai, including last May’s attack on Christians visiting St Catherine’s Monastery in southern Sinai, where 29 were killed on the spot and a further 22 injured.
Monday’s attack in al Arish may have been on an empty church, but it is clear that the reason it was specifically targeted is that both the Islamists who burnt it down after the Muslim Brotherhood lost power and Islamic State share the same intention – the religious cleansing of all Christians from Sinai.