Days after security forces stormed the Minya village of Delga and arrested dozens of residents following a month of sectarian violence, two women stand at their doorstep watching police forces arrive at the Virgin Church, just a few feet away from their house.
Police officers get out of their vans holding their weapons and wearing bulletproof vests. They make their way into the burned, partially demolished church to inspect the building, which was torched during the recent events. They leave shortly after.
As the dust from the vans settles, we ask the two women about what happened. They both look at the church and say, “Nothing happened. Everything is fine here.”
Starting June 30, when demonstrations against former President Mohamed Morsi took off nationwide, Delga — a town of 120,000 that calls itself a village — saw increasing sectarian acts. First, Muslim youth and children roamed the streets chanting against their Christian neighbors, then attacks on churches and Christian houses started. Then news spread that since June 30, Islamic groups gained control over the town and kept security forces from entering it. The attacks escalated on August 14 when the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo were violently dispersed.
A month later, security forces raided Delga, arresting 72 of its residents and announcing that it had regained control of the village. Over the following week, the police made more arrests.
However, locals agree on one thing: The police got the wrong people.
“Only innocent people were arrested, not one thug was caught,” says Taher Ahmed, an area resident.
Among those whose family members were arrested, several insist that they are innocent. Locals support their claims.
Mostafa Omar has a copy of a document showing that his brother Ahmed signed into work at his government job on the morning of the events. Omar says that Ahmed was taken from his office.
“Those who were arrested were not running, because they didn’t do anything; they took them from their houses. Those who committed the crimes ran and hid in the agricultural fields,” Omar alleges.
Many locals claim that the police know the real assailants, who were terrorizing the town long before the recent violence, and went to their houses to catch them. They say that when they didn’t find them, security forces started arresting people randomly.
Illegible scribbles can be seen on the walls of the torched homes. Residents say that the assailants wrote their names on the houses they torched, and that the police painted over them during the raid.
Locals standing by, including Christians, support the families of those arrested, affirming that they are law abiding citizens who have good relations with their Christian neighbors.
While some say that the arrests were random, others claim that the police targeted those with Islamist leanings, considering them supporters of Morsi and more likely to commit violence to protest his removal.
“They took anyone who had grown a beard. They took those who were running Islamic schools for the children, good people that we know and have relationships with,” says Mahrous Gabr, a Delga resident.
One member of al-Awami family, who does not want to reveal his first name, says that six of his family members were arrested in the raid, including his father.
“They arrested anyone with beards,” he says, reluctant to say that Islamists were being targeted. “There are no Islamists here,” he explains.
Though he may not identify with the label “Islamist,” Awami went to the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in in Cairo.
“Of course I went to Rabea,” he says. “Most of the town was at Rabea. Some people went just to take a look; I was there for 11 days.”
Many are reluctant to speak about the burning of buildings and attacks on Christians — from the elderly women who live by the church, to the Christians around it who refused to say anything except to insistently defer to the local priest.
But those who do acknowledge the events place the blame on “baltageya” (paid thugs). Several people suggested that it was baltageya from outside Delga who committed the attacks. Others say the thugs — or some of them, at least — are indeed from the town, but not from the big families.
“There are all kinds of people in this town, the good and the bad,” says Mahmoud al-Sherbiny, another resident. “The thugs are from the town, but not from the intermediate families in town — not the big ones.”
It’s a problem that the baltageya are not from these families, Awami explains, “because it is through the big families that problems are sorted out.”
But the son of the elders of one of Delga’s major families, Mohamed Sobhy — who works in Cairo as a banking lawyer — contends that the power of the families has declined.
“There are no families anymore. Now, weapons rule,” he claims.
Those who asserted that the real assailants are known to everyone declined to reveal their own identities to Mada Masr for the same reason: Preserving relations between the town residents.
“We have a family system here. If I tell you someone’s name, then it will create a feud between both our families,” one resident says.
In a triple move, these locals thus distance themselves from the recent violence in terms of how they identify those responsible for the violence. First, they describe the assailants with the stigma-laden term “baltageya.” Second, they say these thugs did not come from Delga; and finally, they suggest that even if they were from the village, the assailants were not from the three or four main families who command respect in the community.
The local priest, Ibram, has a different story to tell. On the day of the dispersal of the Cairo sit-ins, he says there were calls issued from the mosques’ loudspeakers.
“They were calling for jihad, declaring our brothers are being killed in Rabea. So the people, thousands of them, started attacking churches,” he alleges.
In a town with high illiteracy rates, he suggests, people will follow anyone who speaks in the name of religion.
The attackers looted the churches, stole what they could lay their hands on and then set the places on fire, Ibram recounts.
“Thugs like to steal,” he says, “but those who sent them want them to loot and destroy,” as part of what he describes as a “carefully planned scheme.”
“When so many churches are burnt in one day, it sends a strong message to the government and state,” he says.
Ibram thinks the attacks have introduced a certain tension into the community: “It’s not normal that I see someone attacking my churches, and the next day interact with them normally.”
But both he and the Muslim locals speak a shared language of Christian-Muslim relations. The priest cannot recall a single other problem before the attacks.
“We’ve always been like brothers,” Ibram says.
However, assistant priest Yohana says that subtle signs of sectarian tension have always been in Delga, even if they never materialized in violence until now.
“There were small things; for example, [Muslims] can insult [Christians] jokingly, but not the other way around,” he says.
“As soon as the attackers came, the Muslims stood up to them,” Ibram recalls.
He calls in Gamal Tala’a, asking him what happened when his home was attacked. Tala’a dutifully replies that Muslims protected him, giving him shelter for three days. Earlier, like other Christians near the church, he had been reluctant to speak to Mada Masr, directing us to the priest instead.
Sherbiny also narrates how Muslims protected their Christian neighbors, but adds that this was not easy.
“The thugs threatened the Muslims, telling them, ‘If you don’t stay out of it we will kidnap your kids.’ We protected them as much as we could, but how can you stand up to a thug? They’ll shoot you,” he says.
Sherbiny takes us to a Christian home, nestled among other Christian houses. Several people pile in behind us. A number of individuals are talking at the same time. The women are the loudest.
“No one did anything thanks to them [the Muslim neighbors]. If it wasn’t for them, there would have been atrocities,” one woman shouts.
Another says that every time she hears a noise and gets scared, she looks out “to find Muslims locking hands in front of our homes to protect us.”
It seems almost as if each neighbor is trying to shout louder than the other to tell these journalists from outside Delga how grateful they are to their Muslim neighbors.
“We want to live in peace,” Yohana explains. “We have to say that we’re ok. If I tell you that we have problems you will go and write your report and have a good story, and then we will suffer the consequences.”