Egypt's Christian Community Suffers another Attack by ISIS

Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay considers the recent terror attack near the Saint Catherine Monastery in Sinai and discusses the Israeli response to the growing Islamist threat in the peninsula

Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt (Photo: AP)

A policeman was killed and four others were injured at Mount Catherine's security checkpoint on April 18, 2017, in South Sinai after an exchange of fire with ISIS militants. According to a statement issued by the interior ministry, a group of militants opened fire on the checkpoint ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on a police checkpoint about 800 meters from the entrance to the monastery. After an exchange of gunfire, the attackers fled the scene. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack via its news agency Amaq.

Egypt’s health ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said the four injured policemen were transferred to Sharm El-Sheikh's international hospital. The body of the policeman who was killed was transferred to St. Catherine hospital.

The Saint Catherine monastery is one of the oldest Christian monasteries and a UNESCO world heritage site. The Greek Orthodox monastery was built by order of the Emperor Justinian I, who reigned from 527 to 565, on the site beneath Mount Sinai where, according to Scripture, God spoke to the prophet Moses from a burning bush. The monastery is a main tourist attraction in South Sinai. Security had been put on high alert at tourist facilities across southern Sinai after the attack.

The Catherine Monastery also employs 400 workers at its olive groves, grape farms, honeybee farms and several processing facilities.

The attack on the security checkpoint near the monastery comes two weeks after the bombings of Mary Girgis (St. George) Church in Tanta and Saint Mark's Church in Alexandria. The total number of casualties in the two attacks climbed to 47 dead and 126 injured, in the deadliest militant attack in Egypt against civilians in decades. The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility, through their social media affiliate accounts.

In July 2013, the monastery was forced to close its doors because of the deteriorating security situation in Egypt followed the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi, which sparked upheaval across the country and revenge attacks on Christian churches.

The Terror Attacks against Copts in Sinai

A spate of jihadist-linked attacks in El-Arish in North Sinai Peninsula have led some Coptic families to flee their homes. Eight terrorist attacks have targeted Christians in North Sinai, killing members of the Christian community. Seven Christians have been killed in El- Arish between January 30 and February 24, 2017. ISIS claimed responsibility for the killings, five of which were shootings, one man was beheaded and another set on fire.

The Islamic State group released a video vowing to carry out attacks against the Christian community in Egypt and promising to "liberate Cairo." It described the Coptic Christian minority as “infidels” empowering the West against Muslims. The 20-minute video titled "Fight All Idolaters'' also purportedly shows the last statements made by the suicide bomber who blew himself up in Cairo's St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church on December 11, 2016.

The assassinations stoked panic among Christians and have sent hundreds of Christians fleeing Sinai to the city of Ismailia on the Suez Canal. The families have been housed in youth ministry hostels in Ismailia as well as at the Anglican Church, and basic needs such as food have already been provided.

Christians in northern Sinai have been fleeing in waves over recent years because of militant threats, and the community that before 2011 numbered up to 5,000 people has now dwindled to fewer than 1,000.

Israel and the Terror Threat in Sinai

On April 10, 2017, before the Passover holiday, the Transportation Ministry shut down the Taba crossing to Israeli vacationers hoping to enter Sinai, citing fears of an imminent terror attack by the Islamic State terror group. Israelis inside Sinai can still use the crossing to return to Israel – and were encouraged to do so. The initial closure was ordered by Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, after discussion with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and other security officials, according to a Transportation Ministry statement.

The decision came a day after two lethal attacks on the Egyptian churches by the terrorist group’s so-called Sinai Province.


The attack comes just ten days before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Egypt and just over a week after two deadly suicide bombings on Christian churches, also claimed by Islamic State, plunged the country into mourning and marked one of the bloodiest days for the country's Christian minority in decades.

The attack on St. Catherine's would be the latest challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has pledged to protect the Christian minority as part of his campaign against extremism and terrorism.

Egypt's tourism industry, a crucial source of hard currency, has suffered greatly in the years of turmoil that followed the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The attack in southern Sinai comes as Russia is expected to make a long-awaited decision on whether to restore flights to the Sharm el-Sheikh resort after a Russian airliner was downed by ISIS in 2015. Attacks in Egypt's southern Sinai, a popular destination for tourists, are dealing a serious blow to Egypt's tourism industry.

Insurgent attacks in Egypt have intensified since a 2013 military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party. Attacks against security forces have become common in recent years largely concentrated in Sinai, where Egypt's army and police are battling an entrenched Islamist insurgency.

The Islamic insurgency in Egypt is far from being over, and the Egyptian government is unlikely to end its crackdown on the Brotherhood, IS and other Islamist groups, anytime soon.

Israel took the unusual step earlier this month of barring its citizens from crossing into the Sinai peninsula, saying the threat of attacks in the area inspired by ISIS and other militant groups was high.

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