Egypt priest killed in IS-claimed attack

Cairo (AFP) - An Egyptian Coptic priest was shot dead Thursday in the Sinai Peninsula where authorities are battling a jihadist insurgency, officials said, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.

The violence came as the country marked the third anniversary of mass protests that prompted the military to overthrow Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, unleashing a crackdown on dissent and a jihadist insurgency.

The priest, Raphael Moussa, 46, died instantly when a man shot him in the head as he was standing next to his car in El-Arish, the capital of North Sinai, said Boulos Halim, a church spokesman.

The Islamic State group's Egypt branch claimed responsibility for the murder in a statement posted on social media, accusing him of "combating Islam".

Moussa had earlier left a church where he attended mass, Halim said.

The interior ministry said the priest was gunned down after having gone to an area of El-Arish with mechanics to have his car repaired.

The IS affiliate in restive Sinai has waged an insurgency that has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers.

It has kept up the attacks, mostly roadside bombings and ambushes, despite a massive military campaign to uproot jihadists from the eastern peninsula bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Moussa was not the first priest killed in Arish.

Mina Aboud, a fellow priest, was shot dead on July 6, 2013, three days after the military toppled Egypt's Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, unleashing clashes and a crackdown on his supporters.

Pro-Islamists attacked and torched dozens of churches and Christian properties a month later, after police killed hundreds of Morsi supporters in Cairo clashes.

They accused the Coptic minority of supporting the overthrow of Morsi, whom the army deposed after millions of Egyptians rallied to demand his resignation.

Leading Muslim clerics, as well as the opposition and the Coptic Orthodox Church, supported his overthrow after a year of divisive rule.

Apart from Christians and security forces, jihadists in Sinai have also targeted Muslims they accuse of working with the government.

The group has also carried out attacks in the country's western desert and along the long border with Libya, which is also used by weapons and drug smugglers.

On Thursday, the military said "armed smugglers" killed six soldiers in an exchange of fire.

Jihadists have attacked foreign tourists and beheaded a Croatian oil worker after abducting him near Cairo.

IS claimed responsibility for last October's bombing of a Russian airliner carrying holidaymakers from a resort in southern Sinai, killing all 224 people on board.

"The whole situation in El-Arish and North Sinai is under threat," said Halim. "Many people (Christians) have left."

Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 90-million population, faced persecution and discrimination during the 30-year rule of president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled by a popular uprising in 2011.

Dozens have been killed in sectarian attacks and clashes across Egypt.