Several Christian families have fled their homes in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula after receiving death threats from suspected Islamist militants, officials and residents told AFP on Friday.
Last week, flyers began circulating in the town of Rafah on the Gaza Strip border demanding that its tiny Coptic population move out, residents said.
Officials at the local church informed the authorities of the threats, but no actin was taken, they added.
Days later, a shop belonging to one of the families was fired on with automatic rifles, witnesses said.
The events prompted the families to leave Rafah but there were conflicting accounts over whether they had done so voluntarily or been evicted.
“The families have left Rafah and gone to El-Arish,” one official said on condition of anonymity.
Another official denied that any Coptic families had left at all.
Representatives of the families, many of whom hold government jobs as well private businesses, sat down with the governor of North Sinai earlier this week and asked to be transfered to the nearby town of Al-Arish, the official said.
The events come amid heightened sectarian tensions in the country, particularly in the lawless Sinai peninsula where the armed forces launched an unprecedented campaign in August to root out Islamic militants.
Father Mikhail Antoine of El-Arish church told AFP “the families moved voluntarily because they feared for their lives after the threats.”
He said the Coptic population of North Sinai numbered 5,000 to 6,000, adding that around seven Coptic families had been living in Rafah before the move.
It is not the first time Copts have been forced to leave their homes. In February, eight Coptic families were evicted from the village of Sharbat in northern Egypt following clashes sparked by rumours of an illicit affair between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman.
Copts have been nervous since Islamists came to power following an uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year.
They have also been fearing the backlash from an anti-Islam film apparently produced by a Copt in the United States that sparked violent protests worldwide, and that they believe will lead to further persecution at home.
The film made in the United States entitled “Innocence of Muslims” caused outrage for mocking Islam and portraying Mohammed as violent and immoral.
On Thursday, an Egyptian court upheld the six-year sentence of an Egyptian Christian teacher for mocking the Muslim Prophet Mohammed and insulting the president.
A day earlier, the trial opened of another Copt, Albert Saber, who is accused of blasphemy, insulting religions and inciting sectarianism through his Internet postings, including clips form the anti-Islam film.
Saber faces up to five years behind bars in a case that has sparked condemnation from human rights groups and raised concerns over freedom of expression under Islamist Morsi, Egypt’s first president since strongman Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising.
Egypt’s Christians, who make up six to 10 percent of the country’s population of 82 million, have regularly complained of discrimination and marginalisation. They have also been the target of numerous sectarian attacks.