LIBYA: Islamic State group still holding kidnapped Egyptian Christians

A Libyan group affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for recent kidnappings of Egyptian Christians in Libya.

The terrorist group, which calls itself the Islamic State of Tripoli, has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of 13 Egyptian Christians in the coastal city of Sirte on 3 January, and the kidnapping of seven Egyptian Christians in Sirte on 30 December. The group posted photographs of the 20 Copts on “The International Jihad Network,” a website used by Islamic State and its allies, stating: “Urgent. Islamic State soldiers have captured 21 Crusader Christians from different parts of the Islamic State of Tripoli.”

The group claimed it had seized 21 people, but photographs of only 20 appear on the website, and it is unclear if a there was an extra kidnapping victim.

The families of the 20 kidnapped Copts, who come from Minya province in Upper Egypt, have identified all the men. Mina Thabet, a researcher with the Cairo-based Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, described the families’ shock: “I cannot begin to tell you how devastated they were as they recognised their sons. They have no idea where they are or what their fate will be.” The militants’ statement did not include demands or a condition for the release of the captives.

Names of the kidnapped men
The names of those kidnapped on 3 January are Maged Soliman Shehata, Abanoub Ayad Attyia, Yousef Shoukry Younan, Hani Abd Al-Messeih Saleeb, Kerolos Boushra Fawzy, Milad Makeen Zaky, Makram Yousef Tawadrous, Samuel Astafanous Kamel, Bishoy Ashtafouns Kamel, Mina Fayez Aziz, Malak Ibrahim Taniot, Gerges Milad Taniot and Bishoy Adel.

The names of those kidnapped on 30 December are Samuel Alahm Welson, Ezat Boushra Naseef, Louka Nagaty, Essam Badar Sameer, Malak Farag Abraam, Sameh Salah Farouk and Gaber Mouneer Adly.

All we can do is just continue praying for their safe return,” said Nassem Ghaly Kamel, a relative of several of the kidnapped Copts. Another relative, Bisheer Estefanos, a farmer from Minya, said he recognised his brothers, Bishoy and Samuel. “All we can do is pray to God for help,” he said. “Their mother is tired of crying.” He said the brothers had travelled to Libya in the hope of finding work and making enough money to start a family.

Days before the photographs were posted, the Islamic State of Tripoli announced, with photographs, that they had executed two Tunisian journalists, Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari. The group claimed the two journalists, one a reporter and the other a photographer, had “fought Allah and sowed corruption in the land“.

On 14 January, the United Nations began facilitating peace talks in Geneva between factions in the ongoing conflict in Libya, which remains divided between an internationally recognised government in the east and the Islamists who control the capital, Tripoli in the west.

Sirte is also controlled by Islamist militias, including Ansar al-Sharia, which the UN added to its terror list in November over links with al-Qaeda and for running Islamic State training camps.

Incorrect reports of Copts’ release
Several news organisations and advocacy groups published incorrect reports that the Copts had been released, based on a BBC story that confused the kidnapping with a case of Egyptians being helped across the border into Libya. In that case, complications during the border crossing resulted in the Egyptians’ disappearance, and media confusion apparently resulted from all of them being released shortly after the kidnapping of the Copts.

On 5 January the BBC and Agence France-Presse cited a Libyan news service, Al-Wasat, which quoted Libyan tribal leader Muftah Marzuq, head of the council of elders in Sirte, as saying the men had all been released. The BBC quoted him as saying “people smugglers” had detained the Christians temporarily over a financial dispute. However, they were not those kidnapped on 3 January in Sirte. On 6 January the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that the reports of release were untrue.

Copts avoid kidnapping
The 13 Egyptians were abducted when a group of Islamists burst into a housing complex in Sirte, but 16 other Copts escaped. One of them, Hanna Aziz, said 15 armed and masked men went from door to door calling for Christians by name, and forced Egyptian Muslims living in the complex to lure the Copts out of their rooms. “They had a list of full names of Christians in the building,” he said. “While checking IDs, Muslims were left aside while Christians were grabbed. I heard my friends screaming.”

He escaped simply by not opening the door to the men. “It was a miracle they didn’t kick down the door down and get me,” he said. “I was literally facing death there, and it is a miracle I am not with the others.”

The kidnappers took the Copts away in four vehicles, some of which were pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted in the back. The next morning, the owner of the complex forced the rest of the Christians in the building to leave. They went to hide in the surrounding hills and farms.

A Libyan helped the 16 escaped Copts to find a van driver willing to go to Egypt. Each arranged to pay US$250 (€215) for transport to the border, a fee the driver raised by US$100 (€86) halfway there.

(The photograph, taken in eastern Libya on 3 October 2014, shows an armed motorcade of militants who reportedly have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.)

Escaped Copt Hanna Aziz said poverty in Egypt had forced the men to travel to Libya, where economic prosperity beckoned if Islamist militia groups could be avoided.

If Egypt had any job opportunities or sources of income for the workers in Libya, we wouldn’t go and risk our lives there,” he said. “I personally have a wife and three kids to take care of, and there is nothing for me here to provide for them. So the next chance I have, I am going back to Libya.”

Egyptian newspaper Watani visited the home villages of the kidnapped Copts in Minya, and found their heartbroken families living on the verge of destitution. Their homes contain very little furniture and are dimly lit to conserve electricity. Each house has one or two small rooms with an adjoining shed for birds and livestock. The villagers can rarely earn more than EGP30 (about €3.60) a day, and might work for a day and be without employment for another two.

Release efforts
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working to secure the release of the kidnapped Christians, and reportedly has received information suggesting that they are alive.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shukry delegated ministry spokesman Ambassador Badr Abdel-Ati and Muhammad Abu-Bakr, Egypt’s Ambassador to Libya, to meet the families in Minya province. Mr Abdel-Ati said the government and all its departments were doing their best to secure a conclusion quickly despite limited options and complicated conditions. He added that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had ordered the formation of a crisis committee to liaise with the Libyan side.

The Libyan Ambassador to Egypt, Fayez Gebriel, confirmed that the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had formed a joint operations room especially for the problem of the kidnapped Copts and that attempts were being made to communicate with the kidnappers. He added that the Libyan authorities were trying to contact tribal leaders who might be able to mediate in the matter.

Mr Gebriel said the fact that Egyptian labourers travel in extended family groups and all live together makes them easy for gunmen to locate. He expressed concern about other Copts living in Sirte and other areas that are not under the control of the Libyan government, but added that Egyptians working in Libya as agricultural labourers are protected by the tribal families that hire them.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II met the families of the kidnapped men and spent time reassuring and praying with them, telling the families, “The government is doing its best to find and bring back the kidnapped Copts and the Church is praying for the good Lord to protect them.”

(Christian Post, Middle East Concern, Morning Star News, Telegraph, Watani)