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A series of deadly attacks in 2011 — most recently the death of a 17-year-old boy — suggest sectarian strife is only getting worse.
MELLAWI, Egypt — Down an alley in this gritty, industrial city inside a home made of stone, eight women dressed in black sat silently in a living room. Their faces were solemn and motionless, except for one who began weeping quietly.
Evon Loga Gabrieul could no longer hold back the tears for her 17-year-old son, Ayman Nabil Labib, who was beaten to death by classmates on October 16 in an unsolved murder case that has raised the specter of sectarian violence in this industrial corner of Minya, a governorate in southern Egypt.
Ayman was Christian and the boys who allegedly killed him are Muslims.
“It was because he was wearing the cross and refused to take it off, they killed him,” said the mother, Evon, who toured her son’s room leaving the other eight female relatives mourning his death in the hallway.
The Labib family and the Coptic Christian community here is anxiously waiting for the findings of the prosecutor’s investigation to see who will be charged and whether the case constitutes a sectarian killing or just a teenage brawl turned deadly.
“They dragged him down from his neck and beat him until he died.”~Evon Loga Gabrieul
Ayman’s parents believe that an Arabic teacher at the school their son attended was the one who instigated his classmates to beat him to death because he refused to take off a Christian cross he wore around his neck. The teacher has not been charged while the two boys remain in detention awaiting a trial date.
From the grieving parents’ viewpoint, Ayman was killed in act of intolerance and hatred visited on a Christian by Muslims. Two eyewitnesses, who were also Christians, gave contradictory explanations as to what happened. But emotion is running high in Mellawi and as Egypt has learned over the decades it doesn’t take much to trigger sectarian violence, particularly in southern Egypt.
The village is an isolated and poor corner of the governorate of El Minya. On garbage-strewn streets lined with poorly constructed homes, a looming sense of agitation is on the rise, villagers say.
Christians here have long complained of living in fear of Islamic fundamentalists who through the years have been too quick to label them infidels. And in a few extreme cases, people said that the fundamentalists have sought to extract a protection tax and confronted Copts violently with rioting and church burnings, such as the attack in Aswan on a Christian center earlier this fall. That attack triggered protests in Cairo outside the government’s television center known as Maspero. In a brutal crackdown on the protesters by the military, 27 were killed. Reportedly, 26 of the victims were Christian.
The Maspero incident has Egypt’s Coptic community on edge, but hard facts about what happened are hard to come by. This is often the case in sectarian violence and the beating death in this small southern Egypt town is no different, according to at least two eyewitnesses.
Romany Ghany, a fellow Christian student who said he was also beaten in the confrontation, said that the reason behind Ayman’s death was not sectarian, but began as a fight over a classroom desk.
Ayman Nabil Labib, 17, was beaten to death by classmates in a case that has raised the specter of sectarian violence in this industrial corner of Minya, a governorate in southern Egypt. His family describes him as an academic and a bookworm who painstakingly hung his class schedule and grades on the wall weekly.
“Ayman insisted on sitting on this desk, so a week later they fought with us. While someone was beating me, others were beating Ayman. They did not mean to kill him but we all thought he would faint only,” said Romany. “Why should we say it's sectarian when it isn’t?” asked Romany, adding that this is what he and others said during the prosecutor’s investigation.
But friend of the family Nady Atef, a human rights advocate in Mellawi, insists that the eyewitnesses are hiding the truth.
“[Ayman] died because of sectarian tension,” said Atef.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long complained about