MINYA, Egypt — The Egyptian province of Minya has frequently been a flash point for sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians. A 2009 report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights specifically focused on sectarianism in Minya and on freedom of belief.
According to the report, Minya was a center of sectarian violence, whether related to the building of churches, the holding of Christian services, rumors about romantic affairs between Muslims and Christians, or cases of regular disputes that quickly turned to mob violence between Muslims and Christians. Violent incidents occurred in the villages of Dafesh in Smalout, al-Ismailiya in Minya and Gargawi in Matai, according to the report.
Today, five years after the report, Minya continues to be the scene of recurrent sectarian incidents, particularly after the forced dispersal of the Rabia al-Adawiya and Nahda protests in support of former President Mohammed Morsi on Aug. 14, 2013. Following this, bloody reprisals spread through the streets of Minya province by Muslim Brotherhood supporters against Christians believed to have played a part in the revolution that toppled Morsi. As a result, a large number of churches, Christian institutions and properties in Minya city were set ablaze on Aug. 14 and during the following few days. The same type of incidents also occurred in other cities of the province, the most violent of which took place in Malawi and Deir Mawas.
After those events, a fact-finding mission from the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies in September 2013 showed that Minya witnessed the most violent of incidents, particularly in the village of Delga, where 27 houses were vandalized and 62 families displaced.
Sectarian strife has been rampant in Minya since the Rabia al-Adawiya massacre. The incidents in Minya, and Delga in particular, created a sectarian hotbed of unrest, which spawned further incidents of sectarian violence not necessarily tied to a particular political issue. For example, a dispute erupted in the villages of al-Hawarta and Sheikh Obeid in Minya, where four people were killed on Dec. 1, 2013, two of whom were Christians and the other two Muslims, after a quarrel about a piece of land.
This was followed a few days later by the torching of all Christian houses in the village of al-Badraman, when a young Muslim man was killed as a result of a love affair between a Christian man and his Muslim female neighbor.
The year 2013 saw great strife in Minya, where as many as 30 churches were burned and many people were killed.
Awad al-Fargini, chairman of the Reconciliation Committee in Minya, described to Al-Monitor the heightened sectarian tensions in the province. “In 2013 alone, we conducted 20 reconciliation hearings between Muslims and Christians to end ongoing disputes. This is a large number when compared to previous years. In the hearings, a decision is rendered against one of the parties in the presence of Christian and Muslim leaders, as well as officials from the province and the church. In those cases, the party that violates the reconciliation terms is compelled to pay large fines amounting to 2 million Egyptian pounds [$286,000], as was the case in the villages of al-Hawarta and Sheikh Obeid,” he said.
Fargini said such traditional hearings were more effective than resorting to the courts because they expedited the process of ending the dispute. These hearings do not entail years of waiting, as is the case in the judiciary, where appeals and cassation sessions are held. He said the increase in the number of sectarian dispute cases in Minya in 2013 was due to the intransigence of Brotherhood supporters, who considered Copts responsible for the downfall of Morsi and the Brotherhood’s regime, as well as due to the state of lawlessness that prevailed in the country after the January 25 Revolution.
Noting the economic factor in the violence, Maj. Gen. Osama Metwally, the security chief in Minya province, told Al-Monitor, "The security approach alone is not enough in Minya. The province lacks the development and projects needed to sap the energy of young people and protect them from people who exploit them in this kind of strife, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or other parties with particular interests."
Regarding the difficulty of dealing with such sectarian incidents in Minya, he said, “We are faced with many difficulties, most important of which is that people here have highly volatile temperaments, with full-blown sectarian strife almost erupting as a result of trivial disputes that nearly become religious catastrophes. We therefore cannot anticipate incidents, and the Minya problem will not be solved except through measures taken on the state level, starting with educating the youth, changing Al-Azhar’s rhetoric and media coverage. The problem goes beyond security in general.”
Makarios, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Minya and Abu Qerqas, concurred, “The situation requires changing the culture of society, so that everyone is able to accept everyone else as a partner in the nation. To change this culture, the government must start from within, and focus on the education and culture of new generations, because the tensions that have existed for decades and the resulting situation are akin to a powder keg that may explode at any time. Minya has endured this situation for years, and successive governments have failed to solve the problem for lack of trying to deal with the roots of the issue,” he told Al-Monitor.
Makarios attributes the incidents of sectarian violence in Minya to the state’s neglect of Upper Egypt in general throughout the past decades, leading it to become a haven for terrorist groups since the 1990s. A particularly reviled trio thus converged on Minya: poverty, disease and ignorance. A large portion of the population is unemployed, with some estimates putting the unemployment rate as high as 81.6%. Cases of renal and liver failure have multiplied, as has the rate of illiteracy, estimated at 38.2%. As a result, terrorist groups and extremist ideologies have flourished throughout the years, with the situation remaining unchanged to this day. Yet, most Muslim Brotherhood leaders have left Minya.
“No governor came to Minya and focused on its villages, settlements or slums. As a result, nothing changed since the 1990s or even the 1980s, with the same extremist thought prevailing,” he added.
Makarios said, “Traditional hearings were not recognized as a solution by the church because they did not fundamentally deal with the root causes of the problem. Rather, according to him, they were mere superficial, stopgap measures, where hands shook before the media, greetings and smiles were exchanged, while hearts remained filled with hate.”