In the latest in a long string of attacks in Minya a crowd of extremists this week attacked a Coptic prayer house which they claimed was an unlicensed church in Zaafarana village and expelled the priest.
Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the See of St Mark, said in a recent television interview that he was deeply saddened by the sectarian incidents that occur in the area and stressed that informal arbitration councils are incapable of resolving the problem. The solution, he said, is to enforce the law.
Though recurrent, sectarian violence is not common to all parts of Minya. In some areas Coptic and Muslim neighbours live in peace and harmony.
Some are of the opinion that Minya has more than its share of extremists. Others counter that eruptions of sectarian violence in the governorate are the work of a small minority who fire the credulous with falsehoods and misguided ideas.
Political analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah attributes the frequency of sectarian strife in Minya to ignorance, unemployment and a range of economic problems.
“The lack of public services and infrastructure in most villages, from potable water and proper wastewater disposal systems to electricity and healthcare, combined with high unemployment rates among university graduates and graduates of other institutions of higher education, has created a social environment lacking hope.'
"This environment, with its dearth of development programmes and lack of horizons for young people, breeds extremist religious ideas and radicalism,” Abdel-Fattah recently wrote.
“The fact that some local agencies and prominent families then resort to informal councils and apply their rulings to contain sectarian disputes is actually a cause of their reoccurrence.”
In a statement released this week, the office of the Minya diocese said that the attacks which happened Friday actually began a few days earlier when, on 7 January, a group of extremists stormed a small place in which prayer services have been held for some time.
According to sources, the incident forced Reverend Macarius, the bishop of Minya, to postpone his annual trip to Canada which had been scheduled for the end of January.
Bishop Macarius has been quoted as saying that it is the government which should decide if there have been violations regarding the construction of a church, not individuals.
The bishop said that as citizens Copts are only demanding their rights.
Commenting on the closure of the prayer house in Zaafarana, MP Mahmoud Badr said: “A thousand ignoramuses and rabble rousers marched against a prayer to God. A thousand miscreants for whom faith is ignorance arm themselves with a thousand fatwas by sheikhs for whom ignorance is a religion. I believe that this is the first true test of the [newly founded] Supreme Council to Combat Sectarian Strife."
"The solution is in the rule of law. Local arbitration councils are not the solution. The solution is to be found in a strong state that protects its people’s right to freedom of worship,” MP Badr added.
A study conducted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) showed that rumours are instrumental to igniting or aggravating sectarian clashes. In many cases incidents are triggered by rumour campaigns to stop the construction of a church or new religious edifice, EIPR said.
Other incidents are ignited by a trumped up “scandal” involving an amorous relationship between members of different faiths. The rumour mill serves as a device for sectarian mobilisation on a scale that extends beyond a particular location to include entire neighbourhoods and nearby villages that have no relationship to the parties directly involved in the dispute.
Other studies have found that multiple factors converge to make Minya the governorate most plagued by sectarian violence. There is the rugged topography, demographic composition and sharp class contrasts. In the midst of widespread poverty one finds “plantations” with luxurious villas and other ostentatious manifestations of wealth. In addition, some local churches rival the grandeur of cathedrals in their opulence and scale.
Recent incidents, while grave, offer an opportunity for Minya to declare that it placed the task of rectifying Muslim-Christian relations at the top of its agenda and will allocate a sufficient portion of its budget to support activities that promote peaceful coexistence.
Through its directorates of culture, youth, education, religious endowments and social solidarity the governorate has the power to influence people. It can develop programmes tailored to children and young people from the two communities. Joint field trips, communal meetings and other activities can be organised to promote mutual understanding and instil the values of diversity, acceptance and respect for the rights of others.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Dissecting sectarianism