Egyptian Christians pretend to be Muslim to survive ISIS attack in Libya
ZAWIYA, Egypt — Hani Mahrouf awakened at 2:30 in the morning when fists pounded on the door of his housing compound in Sirte, Libya.
It was Islamic State gunmen, searching for Egyptian Christians.
“They had a lot of weapons,” said Mahrouf, 33, a Muslim construction worker. “They asked if we were Muslim or Christian.
“We told them we were Muslim. Then they asked for the rooms of the Christians.
“They threatened us with their guns.”
Mahrouf and three companions — two Muslims and a Christian, all from this poor village in Egypt’s Assuit province — survived the early-morning assault by ISIS terrorists.
But 13 fellow laborers, Coptic Christians, were taken away.
Weeks later, masked terrorists beheaded those men, along with six Egyptian Christians and a Ghanaian, on the Mediterranean shore in Sirte. ISIS videotaped the mass execution and released the ghastly footage — including close-ups of the seawater turning red with blood — on the Internet on Feb. 15.
The number of victims made the atrocity one of the more shocking committed by a terrorist group infamous for its brutal killings of hostages.
Mahrouf and survivors of the ISIS kidnappings in early January described the ordeal for the Tribune-Review while sitting in Mahrouf’s house, smoking cigarettes and a communal water pipe as squealing children played across the room.
Their anguish could be clearly heard in their voices and seen on their faces.
The men worked in Sirte, midway between Benghazi and Tripoli on Libya’s coast and the birthplace of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed there by rebels in 2011.
They lived in 15-room compounds, each with a fenced and gated courtyard.
The ISIS gunmen easily scaled the fences, they said.
“There were two rooms for Christians,” recalled Hamdi Ashour, 29, a construction worker who shared Mahrouf’s quarters. “We pointed out one.”
He and the frightened workers said Christian men sleeping in the second room “were our cousins from our village and were Muslim,” Ashour said. “If they opened up that second door, we would have been killed, too,” because the gunmen would have easily discovered that the sleeping men were Copts.
“They opened up the first room and took seven Christians.”
“Of course, we were afraid,” said Mahrouf, explaining the horrible decision they made at gunpoint. “These people came at us with weapons loaded and banging on the door.”
He and the other men watched as the terrorists “jumped over the fence into the next courtyard and did the same thing” in the adjoining compound.
Like Mahrouf and his companions, the men in the second compound “were under the gun and told them where the Christians were, and ISIS took six of them.”
Osama Mansour, a Christian, was sleeping in a room of the first compound when ISIS burst in. Warned of what was happening, he slipped outside and “jumped from fence to fence just ahead of the gunmen,” he said.
He escaped but was left on his own in the dangerous city, separated from his friends.
“I stayed (in Sirte) for 30 days, but I didn’t stay in the same room” from night to night, said the 26-year-old tile worker.
A man he called “Sheikh Ali,” a Muslim from his home province of Assuit, helped Mansour hide and constantly change locations. Eventually, he grew a beard in order to leave Sirte.
“ISIS had two checkpoints that they would move around. I heard they were checking for tattoos” — he pointed to the bluish-black cross that he and many Coptic Christians ink on the insides of their wrists — “and we put a plaster cast on my hand and wrist. Sheikh Ali gave me a Quran and a prayer rug for the trip.
“I had to do this — I can’t have my mother wearing black” for mourning, Mansour said.
Most of his companions returned to Egypt within days of the kidnappings. They slipped past checkpoints manned by ISIS and factions in Libya’s ongoing civil war and fearfully drove the desert road to Egypt’s border, 1,000 miles and 12 hours away.
Many men from the villages of Upper Egypt — the fertile but relatively poor area along the Nile, between Aswan and Cairo — have long traveled abroad for work. Specific villages are known for the countries favored by their men.
The Egyptian government has no official figures on how many of its citizens work in Libya, because many go there illegally. But manpower minister Nahed El-Ashry has said the number could be as high as 900,000.
Nearly 50,000 workers have fled Libya since the beheadings.
All of these men said they are unemployed; they registered for jobs with Egypt’s manpower ministry but have heard nothing.
Some, increasingly desperate to earn money for their families, are contemplating a return to Libya despite the risks of unscrupulous employers withholding their pay, being held for ransom or beaten by criminal gangs — or suffering the horrific fate they narrowly avoided two months ago.
“This country, Libya, it was our source of income — not just for us but for many Egyptians,” said one of the men, Radi Osman, 31. “But whoever goes now, in this situation, will die. … We will go back, or we will die of hunger.”
“I would go to China to work,” interrupted Mansour. “We are farmers; we don’t have any degrees. Our vocational training is all we have.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review’s foreign correspondent. Email her at email@example.com.