Ongoing incidents, possibly sectarian-related, marked the Minya governorate this week, amid increased condemnation by defenders of religious freedoms and a few politicians, who demanded that the state seek firm solutions to end sectarian attacks.
Minya prosecution authorities ordered the detention of five people suspected of murdering a young Coptic man who was killed in Minya’s village of Tahna El-Gabal earlier this week, state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram reported Tuesday.
The suspects are five young Muslim men aged between 17 and 22. However, Al-Ahram quoted Minya Governor Tarek Nasr describing the incident as “criminal”, and not “sectarian”.
Moreover, he claimed that the suspects were on their way to place flowers on their deceased friend’s tomb. However, they passed by a neighbourhood of Christian families on their way to the cemetery, and were prevented from going through on the grounds that “children were playing on the streets”.
This narrative differed from that of Archbishop Makarios of Minya, who said that what actually sparked the incident was a fight between children from Muslim and Coptic families, which then escalated.
On Sunday evening, the families of two priests from Minya were reportedly assaulted with knives by an angry mob, leaving one dead and three injured. “It would be too early to define whether the motives were sectarian or not at this stage, but in the matter of five minutes the number of those attacking the Copts doubled, and then tripled. They went to the mayor for help rescuing them from the attack, but he did not respond to them for more than half an hour, thus allowing the fight to take place,” said John Beshry, representative of the Free Egyptians Party (FEP).
Amid conflicting versions of the story, Ishak Ibrahim, a religious freedoms researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said that a fight between children ignited the incident and others joined after sectarian incitement leading to the Copts being assaulted by cutting weapons.
He added that unconfirmed narrative says that tension was already there in the village over the restoration of a building attached to the village’s church.
A more recent incident took place on Tuesday in the village of Edmo, also in Minya, where five people were injured from both Muslim and Christian parties, as well as the detention of some from both sides.
The scope of condemnation of recent sectarian strife incidents in Minya has widened, but more importantly, the state’s lack of response and failure to properly address the issue of sectarianism is being heavily criticised.
Condemning repeated assaults in Minya, member of parliament Haitham El-Hariri demanded the reinforcement of the law. He criticised the state’s resolution to unconstitutionally and illegally hold customary sessions between parties of the conflict, which according to him is just “burying heads in the sand”.
“The law should be applied on any violators, without arresting innocent people just for the sake of making balanced cases,” El-Hariri commented on Facebook Wednesday.
In the Tahna El-Gabal incident, Al-Azhar declared that a delegation from the House of the Egyptian Family was sent to Tahna Al Gabal. The House of the Egyptian Family was established by Al-Azhar and different churches in Egypt for the sake of facing any sectarian strife.
The two incidents were preceded by an event in May, which was even mentioned in a statement by the president. Dozens of Muslims looted and torched houses belonging to Coptic Christians, forcing a 70-year-old Coptic woman out of her house. She was dragged out into the street, beaten, and stripped of her clothes.
Suspects arrested in the case were released from detention, despite the president’s call for accountability.
“Customary sessions are a failure,” the FEP also said in a Wednesday press release, stating more than five incidents of sectarian violence in the Minya governorate in the past three months. “This gives space for civil conflicts between two citizens to turn into sectarian assault,” stated the EIPR in a Monday report.
Unverified, quickly-spread rumours are often enough to spark sectarian violence. In the above case, the rumour was about a frowned-upon interreligious extra-marital affair.
In several cases, notably in an Alexandrian village in June, it was the rumour that a church was set to be constructed against the desires of some extremist residents, who carried out an attack against Copts in the village.
This has sparked demands to the parliament to urgently issue a law unifying construction measures for houses of worships of different religions. In Article 235, the Constitution calls for reform regarding the issuance of building permits for churches.
*In a previous version of this article it was reported that Ishak Ibrahim, a religious freedoms researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), claimed that Muslims spread a rumour about the construction of a new church to obtain backup in the fight against the Copts. The article has been amended to clarify that Ibrahim said that a fight between children ignited the incident and others joined after sectarian incitement leading to the Copts being assaulted by cutting weapons.