Sunday’s Easter celebrations were marred by an uptick in sectarian conflict in the southern governorate of Minya throughout Holy Week, including a recent string of attacks against Copts living in the village of Nasreya.
The conflict in Nasreya allegedly began when a video circulated showing a Coptic teacher, who resides in the village, praying with five students as they intermittently make fun of the Islamic State. On Tuesday, Muslim residents of the town filed a complaint against the teacher for insulting Islam. He was jailed for four days pending investigations.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told Mada Masr that shortly thereafter, Muslim villagers angered by the video gathered to chant against Christianity, and began throwing rocks at the homes of their Coptic neighbors. Then on Thursday, several properties owned by Coptic residents were vandalized in a reported attempt to pressure the families of the five students shown in the video to hand them over to security forces.
The attacks renewed on Friday after prayers, according to Ibrahim. He lambasted the security forces there for failing to protect the village’s church and Coptic residents, despite having all the means to do so.
Nasreya residents were not available for comment at the time of publishing this story.
Other towns across Minya also suffered from a string of sectarian attacks during Holy Week. Muslim residents in the village of Galaa reportedly interrupted the reconstruction process of the local church, igniting tensions that then erupted into a slew of assaults on properties owned by Copts. A reported 21 Coptic and 17 Muslim villagers were arrested in the incident.
In a reconciliation deal that Ibrahim said is typical of such cases, the Copts were reportedly forced to agree to build their church without a bell tower. They were not compensated for the financial losses incurred by the destruction of their properties, according to Ibrahim.
Sectarian conflict hasn’t only flared between area residents. In a critical development, security forces raided two churches in Minya last week. On Friday, police stormed the Saint Youssef al-Bar prayer house in Mayana Village, located outside of Maghagha City, accusing the worshippers of illegally praying in a property without official permission.
The archbishopric of Maghagha and Adwa said in a statement that the police confiscated the contents of the altar during the raid. The archbishopric has filed a complaint against the Minya police force and exhorted President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to intervene in the matter.
In a similar incident, on Thursday Minya police raided a church in the village of Abu Qurqas — which has long been home to often deadly sectarian violence — and shut down reconstruction work on part of the building.
EIPR has condemned the repeated attacks and the security forces’ laissez-faire attitude toward the conflict, writing in a statement, “It is astonishing that Coptic citizens’ exercise of their constitutional, legal right to worship and build, renovate and reconstruct houses of worship is still hostage to the approval of a majority of the area’s residents.”
“From the first moment, the security apparatus should have affirmed that they represent the state and protect the rights of all its citizens, instead of balking and compelling Christians to accept humiliating conditions to allow them to worship,” the statement argued.
The Coptic community had high hopes that conditions would improve after former President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power, Ibrahim told Mada, particularly given their staunch support for Sisi and the state’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The community was also heartened by the introduction of a provision in the 2014 Constitution guaranteeing legislation to organize building new houses of worship, he added.
But “the current incidents are a blow to all of these expectations. Following a surge in the security crackdown on Copts during the era of former President Adly Mansour, police forces are again back to the same old practices of [former President Hosni] Mubarak’s regime,” Ibrahim claimed.
Under Mubarak, the Interior Ministry typically dealt with sectarian tensions either by directly intervening to halt the renovation or construction of churches if there were complaints from area Muslims, or by engineering template reconciliation deals between Muslims and Copts after violent incidents. These deals almost always encroached on the rights of Copts, according to Ibrahim.
“The police are siding with the weak side, and adopts solutions that are a far cry from any legal or constitutional grounds. What will happen when the police enforce the law for organizing building houses of worship, once it’s passed? What if Muslim majorities opposed the building of a church? Would the police enforce the law or side with the majority?” Ibrahim wondered.
For Ibrahim, one of the most worrying indicators of the future of sectarian conflict resolution is the fact that in the Nasreya clashes, only the Coptic residents accused of blasphemy were arrested — none of those who attacked Coptic citizens or their properties were penalized, he claimed.
“This is a very negative sign from security,” Ibrahim warned. “It is a vicious return to the old practices of the Mubarak regime.”