The Coptic Church in Egypt has been targeted by jihadists again. Fr. Rafael Moussa, a priest from St. George’s Church in Al Arish, the seaside capital of North Sinai, was killed this morning, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group. Al Arish is just 20 or so kilometres from Gaza. The priest had taken his car to a mechanic after morning prayers, when a squad of gunmen opened fire on him.46-year-old Fr. Moussa was married and a father of two. He had served in the parish of St. George in Al Arish since 2012, arriving with Fr. Mina Aboud, another Coptic priest who died in a separate attack in the same city, in July 2013, in the violence that ensued after the military blitz that ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
This coincidence leaves little doubt as to who committed the murder. This is partly due to the importance of the date itself: 30 June marks the anniversary of the big popular demonstration against Morsi, which provided the launch pad for General Al Sisi’s decision to intervene, banishing the Muslim Brotherhood party, on charges of fomenting sectarian division in the country. Al Sisi was army chief at the time and then went on to become the country’s new president. Islamists had not therefore forgiven the Copts for openly siding with Al Sisi and today’s attack was confirmation that Egypt’s Christians are in their crosshairs.
Al Amaq, ISIS’s official media arm claimed responsibility for the Coptic priest’s murder. In a declaration, it claimed “the priest wanted to wage war against Islam”. Jihadist movement Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis – which was among the first to swear loyalty to the so-called Caliphate in 2014 – operates in Sinai.
The incident further confirms that Al Arish – in the tormented Sinai peninsula, a crossroads of arms and militia trafficking – remains outside the control of the Egyptian argy. News reports of terrorist attacks in this area emerge almost daily and today, in addition to the attack against the priest, a bomb exploded in the local police station, leaving one agent dead and one injured.
The Coptic Church announced Fr. Moussa’s death in a statement published in the early afternoon. “We wish to extend our condolences to the bishop, the diocese, his family and his parish,” the statement reads, “and we condemn all acts of terrorism that threaten the salvation of the nation and aim to destroy the unity of its people. May God save Egypt and His children from all evil”.
The call to unity between Christians and Muslims is the key to understanding Patriarch Tawadros II’s attitude towards Al Sisi. In the past three years, the general-president has made some unprecedented gestures in favour of the Copts, such as his two visits to St. Mark’s Church at Christmas and the strong words, against Al Azhar’s extremist interpretations of the Quran. The Coptic Church also nurtures great hopes about a law currently being discussed, that would reduce obstacles for building new churches. But far away from Cairo, Christian communities in Sinai and Upper Egypt remain dangerously exposed. They are a symbolic target that jihadists are not hesitating to strike at again and again.