.- “Dramatic changes” in the Sinai peninsula region offer Egypt's government a chance to rescue trafficking and torture victims, an assembly of Middle Eastern Catholic leaders said Aug. 9.
“Due to the deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai following the recent violence on the Israeli-Egyptian border, a window of opportunity opens up,” the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land said in a communique.
The opportunity “must be used to put an end to the ongoing, festering sore of the prison and torture camps in Sinai,” the bishops and priests wrote, renewing their March 2012 appeal which echoed the concerns of Pope Benedict XVI about criminals' treatment of migrants in the region.
Egypt deployed troops in the Sinai peninsula after militants killed at least 16 soldiers at a checkpoint on Aug. 5. The attackers took control of an armored vehicle and crossed into Israel, where six of them were killed in an airstrike.
Reinforcement were sent from Egypt on Thursday, as gunmen attacked a police station on the peninsula. President Mohammed Morsi said on Sunday that Egypt “will control all parts of Sinai,” where Al-Qaeda-inspired militants are looking to set up a strictly Islamic state.
Twenty regional Catholic leaders – including Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour, and Holy Land Custos Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa – urged the Egyptian soldiers to put an end to another crisis that has caused immense suffering near the border.
“We, the heads of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, continue to call out to the world in our deep concern for the fate of the African asylum seekers who have been kidnapped as they pass through Sinai,” the Holy Land Church officials stated in Thursday's message.
Until now, they noted, Egyptian authorities have not taken effective action against “the general lawlessness in Sinai and the bands of criminals who prey on the African asylum seekers.”
“Despite increasing international pressure, Egyptian officials frequently explained that under the restrictions of the 1978 Camp David agreement and the demilitarization of the zone, Egypt is unable to take the required action.” This inaction, they noted, “has left the torture camps in place.”
But now, having deployed forces against the suspected Islamic militants, Egyptian authorities were urged to seize the chance “to also shut down these camps and make sure the trafficking in human beings stops.”
Hundred of victims, many kidnapped in Sinai while on their way from Eritrea and Sudan, “are being tortured – suspended by the limbs, burnt by white hot irons, electrocuted on their body parts and systematically raped,” the bishops and priests warned, citing documentation by human rights activists.
“At this very moment, the relatives of the victims are paying extortion money to release their loved ones,” they wrote, calling upon the Egyptian security forces to take long-awaited action against the traffickers during their deployment in the peninsula.
“May the cry of the oppressed,” they said, “be heard by those who now have the opportunity to release them from their bondage.”