Stories of sectarian incidents in Upper Egypt’s Minya have become all too familiar.
Only a few weeks after the Karm village incident, in which a group of Muslim residents stripped an elderly Christian woman in the streets, attackers assaulted the families of two Christian clerks in the village of Tahna al-Gabal in Minya earlier this month, leaving one dead and several others injured. For many, this evokes the question: Why is Minya – popularly known as “the bride of Upper Egypt” — disproportionately afflicted by sectarian tensions in comparison to the rest of the nation?
According to a report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Minya was the scene of 10 incidents of sectarian tension or violence in the last seven months, with 77 incidents since January 2011.
Some Minya residents blame the high rate of sectarian violence on demographics, as the governorate has a high concentration of Coptic Christians and is a major stronghold for Islamist movements. They also blame economic conditions and educational weaknesses, common to other places in the country, for encouraging an environment in which sectarianism thrives.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), Minya is the sixth largest governorate, with more than five million inhabitants. Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights specializing in minority rights, says daily interaction between people increases the possibility of friction, especially as Copts constitute a third of the local population.
Hamada Zedan, the founder of Megraya, an art center in Minya City, speaks of memories of segregation between Muslims and Christians in Minya since his childhood.
“The community is split in half, there are exclusively Muslim villages and exclusively Christian villages and the same goes for neighborhoods. We have a big problem with people living together and not knowing each other. They are brought up to reject each other,” he says.
But Zedan also places some of the blame for the tension on religious institutions.
“The church constitutes a state within a state in Upper Egypt. Coptic children join the church-affiliated scouts at a young age and go on trips with the church and so on. On the other hand, Muslim children are affected by the rhetoric of extremist Islamist groups, and so the two grow up charged against each other and blow up at the first spark,” he adds.
Minya has been one of the strongholds of Jama’a al-Islamiya since its foundation in the 1970s and is still home to the leading figures of various Islamist groups. Ibrahim explains that the appeal of these groups is not purely ideological. With high levels of poverty in the governorate, a number of residents depend on charity from these groups to get by, hence they become loyal to them.
A 2011 update on the ranking of governorates in terms of poverty by the state-affiliated Social Fund for Development placed Minya in eighth place, with a 35 percent poverty rate. Egypt’s poverty map, also prepared by the government, showed in 2007 that 3 million Minya inhabitants live in villages that are among the 1000 poorest nationwide.
And there is also the issue of education.
Remon Makram, a Minya local who founded the Liberal Youth Front, says extremist thinking that has been diluted in the north of Egypt as a result of education has largely remained in Minya.
“Most sectarian incidents start with a personal altercation or criminal act and then, with a delay in security responses and because of widespread intolerance in the area, people take the side of those who belong to their group, which is more a reflection of tribalism than it is of religious fanaticism,” he says
This was the case in the last incident in Tahna al-Gabal, which eye-witnesses say started as a brawl between young men and escalated further.
But other incidents began with the targeting of Coptic civilians, like an attack on the houses of several Copts in the village of Nazlet Abu Yakoub by hundreds of Muslims who claimed a house had been illegally turned into a church.
Minya Bishop Anba Makarios’ first response to the incident was a strongly-worded message to the president via his Twitter account: “Just a reminder … Mr. President: Copts are Egyptians, Minya is an Egyptian governorate.” Makarios also demanded that sectarian incidents be dealt with under the law, rather than through customary reconciliation sessions, in recent statements to the media.
Minya residents Mada Masr spoke to said informal reconciliation often provides impunity for the perpetrators, fuelling continued aggression and increasing feelings of powerlessness among the Coptic community.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addressed the issue in a speech at the graduation ceremony of military institutes. He asserted that all Egyptians are equal and that those who are guilty would be punished. The president warned of attempts to create divisions between Egyptians, and of the ill-intentioned handling of these incidents, adding that building equality takes time.
But beyond Sisi’s rhetoric is a sectarianism that runs deeply, even within state institutions and representatives.
Atef Shawky, the head of the fishermen’s union in Minya, says some members of security and government offices also harbor discriminatory attitudes. He recalls how a police officer at a local government office sneered at him when he detected from his full name that he is Christian. “You’re a Copt and holding the position of the head of fishermen?” he said to him, before throwing his ID back at him.