AP

Feb 24, 11:01 AM EST

Egypt Christians flee Sinai after a spate of attacks



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EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) -- Suspected Islamic militants gunned down a Coptic Christian man and stabbed his daughter to death inside his home in northern Sinai, the seventh such killing in a month's time in the restive region, officials and a Christian priest said Friday, prompting hundreds of Christians to flee from the area for fear of being targeted next.

The militants stormed the home of Kamel Youssef, a plumber, on Thursday and shot him to death in front of his wife and children in the town of el-Arish, said two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters. Militants then kidnapped and stabbed his daughter before dumping her body near a police station, a priest in the city said. It wasn't immediately possible to confirm his account.

No militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack but earlier this week, Egypt's Islamic State group affiliate, which is based in the Sinai Peninsula, vowed in a video to step up attacks against the embattled Christian minority. A spate of killings by suspected militants has spread fears among the Coptic community in el-Arish as families left their homes after reportedly receiving threats on their cellphones.

A day before Youssef's killings, militants killed a Coptic Christian man and burned his son alive, then dumped their bodies on a roadside in el-Arish. Three others Christians in Sinai were killed earlier, either in drive-by shootings or with militants storming their homes and shops.

The priest told The Associated Press that he blamed lax security and that he himself has left the city for fear of being killed. He said that hundreds of others have also left.

"You feel like this is all meant to force us to leave our homes," he said. "We became like refugees."

Youssef Tawfiq, son of a slain Coptic teacher named Gamal Tawfiq, said his father was gunned down on Feb. 16 by two masked gunmen 200 meters (220 yards) from a heavily fortified army post in el-Arish. He said no government official or agency provided any support to the family after his father's death.

"I feel like I am carrying a mountain over my shoulders," he said, adding, "we loved the country but our country doesn't love us."

Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt's population, have suffered decades of discrimination. They have increasingly come under attack since the military's overthrow of elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. A top target of Islamic extremists throughout the years, the Christians heavily supported the army-chief-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and his security crackdown on Islamists since Morsi's removal.

The priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said a total of 30 Christians - including Coptic soldiers and two priests - have been killed since then.

The Coptic Church issued a brief statement Friday echoing its longtime position of siding with the government in its war against terrorism.

"They aim at striking our national unity ... in the face of terrorism, which has been exported to Egypt from abroad," the statement said.

The northern region of Sinai, bordering the Gaza Strip and Israel, has been a battleground between the military and Islamic militants since 2011 when the region sank into lawlessness during the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.

Since then, there have been waves of Christian displacement. The first one was from the town of Rafah when the only church, The Holy Family, was looted, torched and destroyed in several militant attacks. The church is built on the site where Christians believe the Holy Family first stopped to rest after crossing into Egypt. Subsequent waves followed militant threats in past years. According to the priest, less than 1,000 remain. There are no official statistics on the number of Christians in cities or across the country.

El-Sissi declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in the volatile region in 2014 in the aftermath of deadly suicide bombings that killed over 30 soldiers. Blaming the stepped-up militancy on Gaza's ruling -Hamas group, which uses underground tunnels for smuggling contraband, the Egyptian military razed hundreds of houses in the border area to create a buffer zone and stop what it described as the infiltration of extremists from Gaza.

Since 2013, Islamic militants have carried out several suicide bombings across Egypt, mainly against the police and the army. However, in December, an IS-affiliated suicide bomber blew himself up inside a landmark Cairo church, killing around 30 worshippers, mostly women.

That attack marked a turn in the Sunni militant group's strategy as Christians became its top targets. The extremists have used Christians' support for el-Sissi as a pretext to increase attacks against them.

The Islamic State group's video, released on Monday, showed the bomber behind the December church attack and described the Christians as "infidels" who are empowering the West against Muslim nations.

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Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.

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