Several Christian families have fled their homes in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula after receiving death threats from suspected
Islamist fighters, AFP news agency reports quoting officials and residents.

Officials at the local church informed the authorities of the threats, but no action was taken, they said on Friday.

Mikhail Antoine, the priest of El Arish church, said "the families moved voluntarily because they feared for their lives after the threats".

Reuters news agency reported on Friday that up to nine families living in the border area with Israel had left their homes.

Last week, flyers began circulating in Egyptian side of the town of Rafah on the Gaza Strip border demanding that its tiny Coptic population move out, residents said.

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 al-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 Sinai peninsula where the armed forces launched an unprecedented campaign in August to root out Islamist fighters.

Increasing fear

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 prompted 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.

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They have also been fearing the backlash from an anti-Islam film apparently produced by a Copt in the US that has led to violent protests worldwide, and that they believe will lead to further persecution at home.

The film, entitled The Innocence of Muslims, caused outrage for mocking Islam and portraying the Prophet Muhammad as violent and immoral.

An Egyptian court upheld on Thursday the six-year sentence of an Egyptian Christian teacher for mocking the prophet 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 drawn condemnation from human rights groups and raised concerns over freedom of expression under Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first president since Hosni
Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising.

Egypt's Christians, who make up six to 10 pe rcent 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.

Source: Agencies