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Is Upper Egypt becoming the epicenter for sectarian violence?

Egypt experienced two incidents of sectarian clashes, one in which Muslims stabbed a Christian to death

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

In a meeting with Coptic Pope Tawadros II, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said all Egyptians were equal in rights and duties under the constitution, and “individual incidents” should not disrupt relations between Muslims and Christians. This statement followed two incidents of sectarian clashes, one in which Muslims stabbed a Christian to death, and another in which Christian homes were set ablaze by Muslims.

A few days before, Bishop Macarius of Minya, the Upper Egyptian governorate in which the two incidents took place, said “consolations are not enough” in response to the pacifying statements of Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam.

The attacks raise the same old questions about sectarian tension in Egypt, but necessitate examining why it has lately been concentrated in one governorate, which witnessed an elderly Christian woman paraded naked in public.

Reasons

“Minya has a large Christian population, as well as a considerable number of Islamist extremists,” said security expert and former deputy Interior Minister General Hussein Emad al-Din. “So when regular clashes, many of which naturally involving Christians, take place, extremists find an opportunity to endow such clashes with a sectarian character, thus adding fuel to the fire.”

This, he added, was coupled with a tendency by residents of villages in which incidents took place to jump to conclusions and rush into action without properly investigating the reasons for the clash. “This is the result of lack of awareness, as well as an official approach that always opts for treating the symptoms rather than the ailment.”

Emad al-Din referred to measures taken by the state following such incidents, which mainly involve tightening security at churches or making sure Muslims and Christians at the scene of the clash are separated.

Journalist Zeinab Abdullah said conditions in Minya made it easier for sectarian clashes to take place. “Minya is amongst the poorest of Egypt’s governorates as 40% of its population lives under the poverty line and 50% are illiterate,” she wrote. “Many basic services are also lacking.”

Abdullah added that Minya had been a major hotbed for Islamist fundamentalists since the 1970s. “Those groups worked for years on inciting violence against Christians, especially when it comes to the construction of new churches and which is in most cases the reason for clashes.”

Abdullah cited a study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which states that from 2011 until mid-2015, 116 people were killed and hundreds injured in sectarian clashes in Minya. Like Emad al-Din, Abdullah says the state is dealing with sectarianism superficially. “It is like supplying a patient with pain killers while the disease is eating up his body.”

Ishak Ibrahim, head of the EIPR’s Coptic Unit, says in addition to the large number of Christians in Minya - which makes daily interactions, and therefore potential disputes, inevitable between Muslim and Christians - there is always the issue of building churches.

“The large percentage of Christians in Minya requires the construction of many churches, something that the Muslim community always resists, and this is a major source of tension,” he said. “This is a result of the absence of a culture of tolerance in which freedom to practice religious rituals should be granted to everyone.”

Ibrahim said resorting to customary reconciliation between disputing parties added to the problem. “The state allows sectarian problems to be solved through local reconciliation sessions. This enhances the feeling of insecurity on the part of victims, who see that their assailants are not punished by the law, thus realizing that the state is not protecting them. This in turn encourages extremists to engage in similar attacks.”

MP Tadros Kaldas seconded Ibrahim’s opinion: “Throughout the series of sectarian clashes in Minya, the state did nothing but issuing statements and allowing local sessions to handle the problem. Meanwhile, not one month passes now without hearing about a sectarian clash in Minya that goes as far as murder, burning of houses and forced evacuation.”

Since most sectarian disputes in Minya are related to the construction of churches, Kaldas said parliament should issue a law as soon as possible that regulates building, licensing and renovating churches.

Journalist Ahmed Hosni recalls incidents of sectarianism in his village Tahna al-Gabal, in which one of the most recent clashes took place. Hosni says sectarian clashes in Minya have always been attributed to two major factors: regular disputes that turn sectarian, or disputes that are originally sectarian.

“The last is always about a love story between a Muslim and a Christian, the construction of a new church, or rumors about the construction of a new church,” he wrote, adding that such disputes were always fuelled by a general animosity toward Christians.

“When in the 2000 parliamentary election there was a Muslim and a Christian candidate, voters were mobilized to vote for the first, who was from the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, even though the second, a leftist, was known to be better.”

Hosni said Christians in Minya had high hopes that their situation would change after the assault on an elderly Christian woman who was stripped naked in public following rumors that her son had a relationship with a Muslim woman. “Yet nothing really happened, and five other attacks on Christians followed that one in the very same governorate.”