William had just returned home to north Sinai when masked militants came for him at his corner shop at dusk. They shot him in the head, dragged his body outside and, screaming “apostate”, beat his corpse in the street.
The Christian shopkeeper had fled the town of Arish months earlier after seven Copts had been shot by jihadists. Yet despite death threats from Islamic State, the authorities told him to return to the city to collect his sons’ school certificates, so they could sit their exams.
William, 43, is one of at least 115 Coptic Christians killed in Egypt by suspected Isis militants in a year. Isis has warned the estimated nine million Christians living in Egypt that they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons”.
Isis militants have stormed Christian homes, businesses, churches and cathedrals and have fired on buses of Coptic pilgrims. More than 300 Christian families fled north Sinai in February after jihadists drew up a hit-list of 40 and started working through it. William was murdered in May.
His widow Mariam, 35, said: “The situation in Arish is getting harder. After William was killed Christians there realised they would never be safe.” She was speaking from Ismailia beside the Suez Canal, where she is living with her two sons, aged ten and 12. “Some families go back to check on their homes but it’s usually only women. They have to be extra careful, they always take supplies with them so they don’t risk going to the shops. They keep their doors and windows bolted. Some just stay in the church there.”
Last month Isis militants stormed a Sufi mosque near Arish killing more than 300 people, the single largest terrorist attack in Egyptian history. President Sisi vowed to crush Isis in Sinai within three months. “You can use all brute force necessary,” he told his security forces.
The interior ministry cancelled annual leave for its employees and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect more than 2,900 religious buildings over Christmas, but Mariam has seen little change.
WADI NATRUN, Egypt—Egyptian security forces wielding assault rifles peer warily into the cars at each of the three checkpoints visitors must go through before reaching the ancient monasteries here about 60 miles west of Cairo. At the biggest checkpoint, on an exposed crossroads, young officers in bullet-proof vests are burning an upturned tree trunk to try to keep warm and to make some tea while waiting, and watching for threats.
During each stop, cars are searched meticulously, identity papers are collected, and visitors gently interrogated. The authorities don’t want to take any chances near a holy site that will soon be the focal point of a major Christian pilgrimage at high risk of attacks by the Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State. It could be the target of other groups as well, like the mob that just stormed a church in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo, on Friday.
Coptic Christians believe the Holy family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph—rested here in Wadi Natrun more than 2,000 years ago as they fled the persecution of King Herod shortly after Jesus was born. Now Christians are facing violent persecution by terrorists from the affiliates in Egypt of the so-called Islamic State, and sometimes violent friction with other groups as well.
Although it appears nobody was killed in the Giza incident, an established church that never won official government authorization for services was attacked, ransacked, and some of the parishioners beaten.
This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes. It is one of the highest death tolls recorded in a single year, according to rights workers.
The Egyptian interior ministry said last week it had cancelled the annual leave for its security forces and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect over 2,000 religious buildings nationwide during the holiday period, which culminates in Egypt on January 7, the Coptic and Orthodox Christmas.
Here in Wadi Natrun the Syrian Monastery, as it is called, is especially important because of its direct association with the story of Christ. The details of the trip to Egypt made by Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not included in the Bible, which has only one reference to “the flight into Egypt” in Matthew 2:13-2:15. But according to Coptic beliefs the family fled Bethlehem through North Sinai, down to what is modern day Cairo, before crossing to the Delta, hiding in Wadi Natrun, and eventually fleeing south to Upper Egypt
“This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes.”
And it is precisely that journey that the government in Cairo and, indeed, the Vatican now want to promote, despite threats by ISIS to launch further attacks on Egypt’s largest minority.
Copts may represent as much as 10 to 15 percent of the population and they trace their roots back to pre-Islamic times. They are not Roman Catholics, but in a historic move last October, Pope Francis blessed and ratified the “Holy Family Trail,” which means it becomes an official pilgrimage not just for the several million Christians in Egypt but the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Francis first mentioned the plan when he visited Cairo in April, and he has declared Egypt “a land where Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, as well as many prophets lived: a land that has been blessed with the precious blood of martyrs spilt throughout the centuries.”
A delegation from the Egyptian tourism ministry travelled to the Vatican two months ago to finalize the process. And last week a Vatican delegation, including officials who manage the Catholic Church’s pilgrimages, toured the country assessing the suitability of the historical sites where baby Jesus and his family allegedly rested.
The Egyptians hope the trail will be up and running by May and draw in a slew of foreign visitors who have stayed away in the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the 2013 military take over led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who is now president.
Father Angelos, who is part of the team organizing the pilgrimage route, told The Daily Beast it sends an important message at a difficult time for Christians. He is the priest at the 4th century AD Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church in old Cairo, which is is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. The Copts believe it was built above the cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph hid for several months, and so is regarded as the most important stop on the holy family trail.
“We are spreading the word that Christ has not visited anywhere else but Egypt which makes Egypt like the Holy Land itself,” said Father Angelos. “It is a message of defiance from the whole of Egypt that it is combating terrorism. It also tells Christians here that they are not marginalized.”
The priest said there were a total of 25 sites along the pilgrimage route, eight of which were ready to be properly opened to visitors next year.
The project is split into two initial stages. The first will see the authorities complete work within the coming year on Wadi Natrun and sites in Cairo, including the ancient Tree of the Virgin Mary in Cairo’s Matariya suburb, where she is supposed to have rested and bathed the baby Jesus. The second stage, which will take a little longer, includes the Muharraq Monastery in the south of the country, Egypt’s oldest working monastery.
The rest of the pilgrimage, which goes through ISIS strongholds in North Sinai, may well have to wait. But plowing ahead with the Holy Family Trail anywhere in the country is a brave move. ISIS has threatened Christians repeately, saying in April they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons.”
ISIS has also targeted foreign tourists, most notably claiming to have taken down a Russian plane full of holiday goers over Sinai in the autumn of 2015. All 224 crew and passengers aboard the Metrojet flight died in the explosion.
Bel Trew, Cairo
US-backed forces in Syria have recaptured Raqqa from the Islamic State, dealing a massive blow to the militants who had anchored their caliphate in the city.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance led by Kurdish forces, told The Times that “military activities were now complete” in the jihadists’ de facto capital and a “clear-up” operation had begun.
A hardcore group of a few dozen mostly foreign fighters were now holed up in the city’s municipal stadium making a final stand.
An SDF spokesman told The Times that at least 22 foreign fighters had been killed in today’s advance. “The military activities are now complete in Raqqa. We have started an operation to comb the area of any sleeper cells,” said Talal Selo, an SDF spokesman. “The situation is under control, an official statement will follow.”
Earlier this morning, Kurdish forces captured the city’s hospital, one of the last Isis holdouts. The remaining fighters are in the stadium, which gained notoriety as one of Isis’s largest jails, and also as a weapons depot.
The loss of Raqqa is a huge symbolic blow to the group that has suffered a string of defeats across Syria, Iraq and Libya. Isis was driven from its largest Iraqi stronghold, Mosul, in July. Raqqa had been its “ capital” since it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. The city was also used by the group to plan its international attacks.
SDF forces launched their operation in November and broke into the city centre in June.
The SDF said the next target would be Deir Ezzor, a neighbouring province where Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian airpower, were slowly advancing. Over the weekend Syrian government troops said they had successfully penetrated Mayadeen, which lies southeast of Deir Ezzor city.
Bel Trew, Cairo
It will take at least five years and millions of dollars to rebuild the ancient city of Palmyra if there is peace, Syrian officials have said as new pictures revealed the extent of the damage wreaked by Islamic State.
Aerial photographs taken by the Russian air force show for the first time the rubble remains of several monuments within the 2,000-year-old Roman city, located 140 miles north east of Damascus.
Mohamed Asaad, whose family has managed the site for decades, and Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities, said that investigations were still under way to ascertain the full extent of the destruction. Preliminary evaluations, however, show that it would take five years to reconstruct.
Bel Trew, Samalout
The sign of the cross tattooed on their fingers marked out the Egyptian workers for especially brutal treatment at the hands of their captors in Libya.
Some were beaten so hard that they suffered brain damage. Shenouda, 30, says he was among a group of Coptic Christians brutalised while they were held for two weeks in a prison at Tripoli’s main airport.
He said that he was flogged twice a day after his tattoo was spotted by his Islamic guards.
He is among a wave of Egypt’s impoverished Christian minority who have gone to neighbouring Libya to find work despite the risk of violence.
“More and more people are going to Libya because of the economic crisis here. You can’t get work, you can’t make money in Egypt,” said Shenouda, who is now back in his village near the town of Samalout, about 150 miles south of Cairo.
“We are aware of the dangers, particularly as Christians. We know it is more likely we will die than live in Libya but we don’t have a choice,” he said.
Thousands of Egyptians are believed to cross illegally to Libya each year and about 500 young men travel each month from Shenouda’s region alone. They pay smugglers about £300 for passage from the nearby Minya to Benghazi.
Many die making the journey or at the hands of the numerous Islamist and jihadist groups that stalk Libya.
Bel Trew, Cairo, Ammar Shammary, Baghdad
Islamic State has unleashed a wave of female suicide bombers in Mosul, with 20 blowing themselves up since Sunday in a last-ditch attempt to halt advancing Iraqi troops.
The women, believed to be brides of the militants, hid among residents fleeing the country’s second largest city before detonating their explosive vests.
Since the weekend at least 20 have targeted troops and civilians, an Iraqi intelligence source said, as advancing troops penned the militants into a 250m by 500m pocket along the River Tigris — their last remaining territory in the country. “In the last month 38 female suicide bombers blew themselves up in the city,” one security official said.
Until now, Isis has rarely used female suicide bombers in Iraq, where wives or female supporters usually assume domestic or policing roles, but they are now spearheading the extremists’ bloody last stand. An Iraqi commander said yesterday that the militants were engaged in “a fight to the death”.
General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, head of the country’s elite counterterrorism service (CTS), said the deployment of women bombers appeared to be a tactical development.
Zuhair al-Juburi, the head of Mosul’s city council, said that the women were largely non-Iraqi Isis wives, many of whom had chosen death over arrest.
“One of the suicide bombers was Tunisian. She blew herself up among displaced people in the old city,” he said.
She was one of seven women who attacked Mosul’s old city on Monday, according to Lieutenant Colonel Salam Hussein of the Iraqi special operations forces. Security sources said at least 11 civilians were killed, but declined to release details of troop casualties.
Soldiers desperately trying to identify attackers are insisting that women remove their full face veils before approaching their lines. “We are facing more suicide attacks than ever, and we are demanding all women fleeing the old city to remove their niqabs. Most of the bombers are foreigners from Arab countries who joined Isis in Iraq,” said one CTS soldier.