Of the few streets that lie perpendicular to each other in Ezbet al-Forn in Upper Egypt’s Minya Governorate, your surroundings vary depending on which one you choose to walk down.
At the corner of one, a few meters away from a house used as a church where one security guard is stationed, I encounter a number of Coptic women.
“Over here, people are Christian. In the area starting with that colorful building over there, people are Muslim,” one of them tells me, pointing to a house 100 meters away, right next to the church.
“We face south; they face north,” she adds.
When tension befell the village in September after security forces prevented Coptic residents from holding religious ceremonies in a house they used as a church, arguing that it was not registered, Copts emphasized that their problem was with security forces and not the Muslims living in the area.
Anba Makarios, the bishop of Minya and Abu Qurqas, confirmed this sentiment, telling Mada Masr that the segregation of houses in the area does not allow for sectarian conflict to occur, in a governorate where there are two million Copts out of approximately 5.6 million people, as per his estimate.
But while it is believed that the spatial segregation contributes to the sense of security and freedom of worship that the Coptic minority enjoys in Upper Egypt, it also maintains a separation where false perceptions can fester, as well as the apprehension internalized by both groups toward each other.
In the village, a funeral tent in an alley connects a Christian-populated street with a Muslim-populated one. Visitors flock to it from both sides, an observation that residents point to as evidence of the peaceful relationship between Copts and Muslims in the area.
“We are one family. We say good morning to them, and they say good morning to us. We do not wrong them, and they do not wrong us,” a Coptic woman tells me.
“This is just how we found things,” she says, pointing to how the spatial arrangement is more inherited than chosen.
But underneath the exchange of greetings, the separation doesn’t prevent the expression of less cordial sentiments.
For a Muslim resident of Ezbet al-Forn, the existing segregation is better. “Christians can live among Muslims, but Muslims cannot live among Christians. We are merciful and we forgive; they do not,” he argues.
His friend, from the neighboring area of Ezbet al-Nakhl, concurs, saying that he does not feel comfortable among Copts. Their food, he says, has a foul odor. The segregation helps avert problems that might increase as a result of a mixed living: “If we live on the same street and the son of a Coptic man hits my son, I would kill him. It cannot be that a Christian hits a Muslim.”
“We appear to be friendly to each other. We accept each other’s invitations and go to each other’s funerals and weddings. But, at the end of the day, Muslims are loyal to those of their faith, and Christians are loyal to those of their faith,” is how one Muslim resident of Ezbet al-Forn summarizes the fragile peace.
Indeed, evidence of sectarian incidents contradicts the idea that segregation has prevented tension. According to a report released by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in 2016, 77 incidents of sectarian violence have occurred in Minya alone since 2011. The most striking of these took place in May 2016 when Muslims from the village of Karm stripped an elderly Christian woman naked and dragged her through the streets following rumors that her son was in a relationship with a Muslim woman. The incident enraged the Egyptian public, evoking an apology from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi himself. However, the investigation was closed and the assailants were not punished. More incidents continued to take place, including an attack on the Copts of Kom al-Loufy in April, where residents threw rocks at people as they were exiting church after the Maundy Thursday prayer.
Hamada Zeidan, the founder of Megraya, a Minya-based arts center, shares his account of the problem in the village of Barsha. Barsha is divided into two parts: one Coptic and one Muslim; they are known as “south of the shop” and “north of the shop,” a shop being the dividing mark between the two sides of town. The village of Barsha neighbors the villages of Deir al-Barsha, populated by Copts, and Nazlet al-Barsha, populated by Muslims. Sometimes, village names indicate their residents’ religious affiliations. All towns whose names start with “Deir,” Arabic for monastery, are Coptic towns, and most towns whose names start with “Nazlet,” an Arabic word commonly used as part of names of villages, are largely populated by Muslims.
Hamada says that while he was working on an awareness project in Barsha in 2012, he was surprised to learn than the Muslim residents who worked with him got lost in the Coptic part of town. His experience growing up in Mallawi, one of the major districts in Minya where segregation between Muslims and Copts is less established and where sectarian tensions take a less obvious form, was different.
The spatial segregation of demographic groups is common in cities of Upper Egypt that are populated by higher percentages of Copts, Suleiman Shafiq, a researcher on minorities, tells Mada Masr. Examples are Minya and Assiut, where some villages are entirely populated by Copts, such as Nazlet Ebeid, Deir al-Barsha, Abu Hanas, Deir al-Adra in Minya, and Azizia in Assiut.
Mina Thabet, who also researches sectarian issues, says the segregation of demographic groups has intensified since the emergence of Islamist groups that targeted Copts in the 1970s, particularly the Jama’a Islamiya. According to him, the phenomenon is not only evident in Minya or Upper Egypt, as Copts who fled from persecution in Upper Egypt moved to slum belts on the outskirts of Cairo and formed Coptic blocs, seeking security; places such as Ezbet al-Nakhl, Khosous, Marg and Zabaleen still host a dense Coptic population.
There is also a tribal history to this spatial segregation. Magdy Malak, a Minya representative in Parliament, said that 30 years ago, families built their homes near each other, in alignment with the tribal nature of Upper Egypt. A father builds a house, he explains, pushes his cousins to buy the adjacent pieces of land, builds houses for his sons around his own, and so on. Some of these tiny villages are still comprised of just one or two families.
The phenomenon grew more widespread with the expansion of construction in small villages, which had started with 10 or 20 houses and have now reached 200 to 300 residences each, while maintaining the inherited demographic segregation. The MP, however, maintains that small villages that exhibit this division only constitute 10 percent of Minya.
Malak also points to illiteracy as a key factor in fueling this polarization. In some parts of Minya, illiteracy reaches 50 percent, he says. Findings on the poorest Egyptian governorates, conducted by the Social Fund for Development in 2011, put Minya in eighth place, at a poverty level that approaches 35 percent. Egypt’s poverty map of 2007, released by the government, also indicates that three million people in the governorate live in some of the 1,000 poorest villages in the entire country.
For tensions to subside, Thabet does not necessarily believe that spatial integration matters at this point. A good start, instead, would be to take the necessary measures to control the instigation that has come to be common in the discourse of Islamic preachers and leaders. Enforcing true equality that, before anything, allows Copts to build churches and perform religious ceremonies freely is essential, he argues, in contributing to the eradication of false perceptions, hatred and fear on both sides, and ultimately making coexistence possible.