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Coptic Christians flee terror

After Islamic militants barged into his uncle's house, shot him and his son dead, then looted the place and set it on fire, Said Sameh Adel Fawzy knew it was time to leave.

The 35-year-old Christian, who owns a plumbing supply business in Egypt's troubled northern Sinai town of el-Arish, packed up a few belongings and brought his family to the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, joining hundreds of Christians fleeing a spate of sectarian killings last week.

"My cousin went to open the door after he heard knocking," Fawzy said, speaking from a youth hostel where authorities were putting up dozens of families who fled the town. "Masked extremists, terrorists with a pistol, took him inside and shot him in the head," then dragged his screaming mother out to the street half-dressed and killed her husband. The woman, still in shock after the Tuesday night slayings, sat nearby.

The killings, two of seven brutal slayings in recent weeks, come after a devastating IS suicide bombing at a Cairo church in December that killed nearly 30 people. The violence poses a fresh challenge to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government to put down an IS-led insurgency in northern Sinai and prevent spillover that at times has reached the mainland.

The group's local affiliate recently vowed to step up a wave of attacks on the embattled Christian minority, pointing to a shift in tactics toward targeting Christians and their holy sites, which are less protected than the military and police installations that are their usual targets.

Northern Sinai has for years been the epicenter of an insurgency by Islamic militants, and the area's few Christians have slowly been trickling out. But departures surged after suspected militants again gunned down a Christian man in front of his family two days after Fawzy's uncle and cousin were killed, stoking panic among Christians.

No militant group claimed has claimed responsibility for the attacks. But the IS affiliate, which is based in northern Sinai, released a video vowing to step up attacks against Christians, who it describes as "infidels" empowering the West against Muslims.

Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's population, have always been a favourite target of Islamic extremists. But attacks on churches have increased since the 2013 military overthrow of an Islamist president. Christians overwhelmingly supported the army chief-turned-president, el-Sissi, who led the ouster, and extremists have used their support as a pretext to increase attacks against them.

The Christian exodus continued for a fourth day Sunday, bringing to more than 100 the number of families who have fled el-Arish, said Nabil Shukrallah, an official with the city's Evangelical Church.



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