CAIRO -- Islamic militants on Thursday kidnapped a Christian man traveling in a communal taxi in the turbulent north of Egypt's Sinai peninsula, according to security officials, an incident that raises the specter of renewed attacks on minority Christians in the region after a two-year lull.
The officials did not identify the man, but said police pursued the kidnappers into the desert to which they fled after the incident, killing one of them and wounding two others in a firefight, but could not free the hostage. Two policemen were also wounded in the firefight, said the officials.
There was no word on whether any of the other passengers traveling in the taxi, a minibus, were harmed, suggesting that the kidnapping of the Christian man could have been planned. The attack took place about 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of el-Arish, northern Sinai's largest city, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
A spate of attacks on Christians in northern Sinai in late 2016 and early 2017 forced nearly 300 families to flee their homes there and find refuge elsewhere in Egypt. Those killed included a cleric, workers, a doctor and a merchant. The last Christian to be killed in Sinai was in January 2018, when militants gunned him down as he walked on the street in el-Arish.
The militants, now led by the Islamic State group, say they are punishing the Christians for their support of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi who, as defense minister, led the military's overthrow of an Islamist president whose one year in office proved divisive.
The spiritual leader of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians, whose ancient church is the country's predominant Christian denomination, is a close ally of el-Sissi, who has made sectarian harmony a cornerstone of his domestic policy. His patronage of the community has given Christians a measure of protection but did little to protect them from Islamic radicals, particularly in regions south of Cairo where Christians are a sizable minority.
Since 2016, IS militants have killed more than 100 Christians in attacks targeting churches and buses carrying pilgrims to remote desert monasteries. Radicals in provinces like Minya, south of Cairo, whip up anti-Christian sentiments among Muslims, frequently leading mobs that torch Christian homes and businesses or run families out of villages and small towns.
Christian activists charge that some elements in law-enforcement agencies often take the side of Muslims in Muslim-Christian disputes in Minya, turning a blind eye to Muslim transgressions or insisting on resolving them through reconciliation councils rather than enforce the law and prosecute the attackers.
Also on Thursday, according to the officials, suspected militants sneaked into the parking lot of the main hospital in the city of Rafah on the Sinai border with the Gaza Strip and torched two vehicles before escaping. The incident was the latest in a recent spate of violent incidents in Rafah, most of whose residents have been evicted and compensated over the past year to deny the militants hiding places.
Nearly a year ago, the government threw into the battle against the Sinai militants thousands of troops, heavy armor, helicopter gunships and jet fighters in a bid to end the insurgency. The operation has significantly reduced the number of attacks and restored a near total normal life in el-Arish, on the Mediterranean coast.