A Coptic Christian mother in North Sinai who saw her son and husband killed in front of her in their home says she then saw the gunman calmly tick off her loved ones from a hit-list he carried.
In an exclusive interview with World Watch Monitor, Nabila Fawzi Hanna, 65, said that one of the killers had a list of “many names”. After shooting her son and husband he asked her to confirm who they were and then ticked them off his list.
This came after an Egyptian Islamic State affiliate posted a video message, vowing to “eliminate” Egypt’s Christians and to “liberate Cairo”. The video also included the apparent last statement of the suicide bomber responsible for the 11 December attack on a church in Cairo, which killed at least 28 people – mostly women and children.
The day after Nabila’s relatives died, on 22 Feb, a neighbour reported men knocking on the door of her daughter and son-in-law’s home – but they weren’t there. The men then broke into a neighbour’s home and shot him dead as he tried to escape.
These three victims took the number of Christians recently killed in Sinai’s largest city, El-Arish, to seven. IS has claimed responsibility.
Nabila and her daughter, Abeer, were filmed by BBC Arabic after fleeing their homes. They joined scores of other Coptic Christians leaving North Sinai. Most are heading for Ismailia and Suez, about 200km away. Because of the killings, about 70 per cent of the 160 Coptic Christian families living in El-Arish have now left. (One source estimated that over 1,000 of the 1,700 Copts living in El-Arish have now fled.)
Nabila’s son, Medhat Saad Hakim Hanna, 45, was at first reported to have been burned alive by IS militants, but Nabila told World Watch Monitor that wasn’t strictly true. Here is her version of events: “At about 10.30pm, when we were falling asleep, I heard a loud knocking at the door. It made me tense. My son, Medhat, left his room to see who was there. He opened it and two masked men came into the hall. Without asking any questions, one of them shot my son in the head, instantly killing him.
“When I heard the gunshots I rushed out of my room barefoot and found him lying on the ground, bleeding from his forehead and nose. I screamed, asking them why they shot him. They told me to leave the house and pulled me outside, telling me to not to speak to anyone or go back inside. I noticed another two masked men were waiting inside a grey car near our house.
“The men went back inside to find my husband. I heard him plead, ‘I’m a sick old man,’ but they didn’t respond. They shot him twice in the head. Then they came out and asked me if I am a Christian. I said I was, then they asked me what my relationship was to the two men. ‘They are my son and husband,’ I told them. They asked their names and I answered.
“One of them was holding a list of many names and when I gave their names, he looked at the list and ticked them off with a pen.”
The two men asked Nabila if there was any gold jewellery in the house and, when she said there wasn’t, they forcefully pulled her gold wedding ring from her finger before going back inside.
“They looted the house and put the stolen things in their car before setting the house on fire,” she said. “They took about 40 minutes. We’re the only Christian family on the street. I was alone – none of the neighbours helped me; they heard the gunshots but were afraid to come out. I didn’t know what to do. I went back inside and saw the bodies of my son and husband. It was horrific.”
Some young men living nearby came to help Nabila and managed to put out the fire, but not before it had burnt the body of her son, and affected the power supply. Eventually five police cars arrived. Asked what accent the killers had, she said they spoke in a Bedouin accent.
Nabila said that the next day (22 Feb) her daughter’s neighbour told her that masked men came to her home too. But with her husband and children, she’d fled their flat just over an hour before, taking with them clothes and important documents. Masked men then went to Kamel Raouf Kamel Youssef’s house, nearby. They broke in and shot the 40-year-old in front of his wife and children as he tried to escape onto the roof.
Nabila said she felt abandoned by security forces. “There isn’t a security plan to protect Christians [in El-Arish],” she said. “The men took 45 minutes. Where were the police while they did this? And the vet, Bahgat William Zakhar, who was killed in front of people during the busy hours of the day, while those who killed him walked 300 metres down the street shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ [Allah is the greatest]. Where was the security? The security failure in North Sinai made those militants target us.”
Nabila and her family eventually rescued the bodies of her son and husband from the fire. They first took the two coffins in a convoy of vehicles carrying 84 other Christian families fleeing to Ismailia. The funeral of Saad and Medhat was held on 23 Feb at the Church of the Archangel Mikhail in Suez.
Meanwhile, taxi and minibus drivers have been threatened with death if they take fleeing Christians from El-Arish to Ismailia. Father Mihail Anton, a priest at Girgis Coptic Orthodox Church in El-Arish, has spoken to Christians trying to use the transport. Drivers had reported seeing the leaflets at bus stops on 25 Feb.
The same day, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi ordered his government to “take all necessary measures” to help resettle Christians fleeing North Sinai.
The head of the Coptic Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, said in a statement: “These horrific attacks have gone largely unnoticed by the international community, but Copts continue to suffer tragic violations daily. The attacks against them are anti-Christian and religiously-motivated, demonstrated in many cases by the circulation of flyers within villages urging Christians to ‘leave or die’. Similar events have tragically occurred far too often over the past years, and there is unfortunately little deterrent to prevent them from re-occurring.”
Apart from Sinai, there was a spate of murders of Copts scattered across other areas, including Old Cairo, over the Coptic New Year; police at first blamed them on criminal acts, when evidence appeared not to support that.
Najia Bounaim, Deputy Director for Campaigns at Amnesty International UK, said: “The Egyptian authorities have consistently failed to protect Coptic residents of North Sinai from a longstanding pattern of violent attacks… The government must also end the prevailing impunity for attacks against Christians elsewhere around the country and end its reliance on customary reconciliation deals which further fuel a cycle of violence against Christian communities.”
February marked the two-year anniversary of the murder, by IS, of 21 Egyptian Copts beheaded on a beach in Libya. The Copts had travelled to Libya to find work, only to be kidnapped by IS. The video of their beheading was titled, A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross. The Copts refused to deny their faith.
Orthodox Copts make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 90 million people and are the Middle East’s largest Christian community.