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.
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 discrimination in their daily lives. However, many claim that after the ouster of President Mubarak, violence and hatred towards them have increased substantially. In Mellawi, Copts feel that they are marginalized compared to Muslims. In Upper Egypt particularly, many have complained about the excessive discrimination in the educational system. Arabic teachers specifically, many Copts say, too often distort and insult children because of their Christian faith.
The year 2011 has been ill-fated for Christians from the beginning. On midnight of the New Year’s Eve service more than 25 people died and many others were injured. After a lengthy investigation, former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly announced that the Palestinian militant wing Hamas was behind those attacks. But the attacks did not stop. More church burnings took place.
Tensions between Muslims and Christians here have boiled over periodically throughout the last few decades, but have increased significantly over the past few years. But many observers say tensions have increased significantly over the past few years. And after the January 25 uprising, the tensions escalated even further.
There are few facts in Ayman Labib’s case and much confusion over how it happened, but one thing is clear: This family and the mourners surrounding them have joined hands in fear.
For Ayman’s family what started as a peaceful day, by its end, left them devastated by the death of their son and brother who was described by those who knew him as having a bright future ahead of him.
As she walked into his quiet, empty room, Evon began to weep. She grieved more as she stood by Ayman’s bed amid the religious pictures he had posted on his walls and his bookshelves, hundreds of images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in different sizes. At least 15 images of Jesus hung over his bed at the center of the room.
Evon recalled the morning of Sunday, October. 16 when she received a call from a friend informing her that she had lost Ayman. Two of his fellow students at Mellawi Secondary School had beaten him to death.
“They dragged him down from his neck and beat him until he died,” she said.
Nabil, Ayman’s father, sat in the makeshift memorial on the street outside his home telling the story of his son’s death. But he stopped when two young men arrived.
Their wrists didn’t bear the blue tattoo of a cross on their wrists, which is a custom for Copts, and the men were taken to be Muslims. When the two sat down not far away from Nabil, other friends and family members expressed the need to go inside their home to speak freely.
Nady Atef, the human rights advocate, tried to interrupt the father’s discussion, accusing him of hiding the truth about the alleged religious motivation for his son’s beating.
The bed where 17-year-old Ayman Nabil Labib slept.
“His son died because of sectarian tension,” Nady said of Nabil.
Nabil asked Nady to stop accusations until the official investigation takes place.
Two days later, on October 20, two lawyers in Mellawi filed a case against Nady, accusing him of “inciting sectarian tensions” as he was distributing a flyer that referred to the case as “sectarian hate crime” during a recent march in solidarity with Ayman’s family.
One of Ayman’s older brothers, Antonius, who came in late, wept as he remembered Ayman. Another brother, Mina, who was the closest to Ayman said that instead of saving his money, he would spend his money buying gifts for his family.
Mina added that high school bullying is a common act both within groups of Muslim and Christian students and between them.
“I had Muslims who were my best friends, I do not understand what is the reason behind hatred. Maybe it is the way people are raised,” said Mina.
Ayman also had a 14-year-old brother, Youssef, who is mentally disabled. Watching his family weep over Ayman, he broke his silence as he took a closer position to a GlobalPost reporter and said simply, “Maspero.”
“This is a bigger incident than Maspero,” replied the father Nabil. “Ayman was not there burning the army vehicles to die, he had no enmity with anyone. He was a bright student and always has been,” Nabil said, standing strong on his cane. But his neighbors said that he remained afraid to tell the truth about exactly what happened to Ayman.
“To be honest, there are a lot of moderate Muslims,” said Nabil.
The family said that the sectarian tensions come from lack of awareness between different sectors of the society, a product of ignorance. Other Copts point out that the slow speed of the Egyptian judiciary system often makes people exaggerate crime without risk of punishment.
About 60 miles away from Mellawi is a village called Farajallah. The community is predominantly Christian, but very much a mixed population. Residents here say the Muslim and Christian villagers keep their distance from one another. This is particularly true after a fight broke out that led to both a church and mosque being pelted with stones.
Things get ugly fast in many corners of Egypt. And residents here say they are afraid it could happen at any time, and that too often they emanate out in escalating circles of violence from small scuffles to town confrontation to national tension.
In this instance, residents say the problem started as a fight between two school children, one Muslim and one Christian, which then involved their respective families. Stones were thrown by both sides. A rock broke a window of the church. The Christian families marched to attack the mosque, which brought the whole village into conflict.
The local priest, Stephanos Saleh, said the incident has been exaggerated and that people of both faiths have to be careful not to fuel violence with rumors.
“I will not hide if the church was attacked and set into fire, but this did not happen,” said Saleh.
Accurate reporting is essential to tamping down violence and resident Mona El Sayed said that that Arab satellite and state-run television networks too often fail to cover the Christian concerns. She said most information is obtained through “El Tareek,” a Christian channel.
“We watch our Coptic channel “El Tareek” which broadcasts the truth unlike state TV and we do learn about what’s happening in the outer world, namely Cairo’s protests, through this channel,” she said.
But not all Egyptian communities are witnessing tension and violence. Down the road from Farajallah village lies a small town of 30,000 Christians called Nazlet Ebeid, a kind of case study of how Christians could live in peace and equality — albeit in segregation.
In this town, the doors of homes and businesses are adorned with crosses. And the interiors of small shops reveal reverent pictures of Mary and Jesus hanging on the walls. The people here trade with Muslims in neighboring towns and count many Muslims as friends, but they say they find some solace in a segregated community.
Unlike other cities in Egypt, to talk to the villagers, the Minya Orthodox Church not the governorate had to give a final permission, which was denied.
“If you come here to write about us and make the government aware that this village exists, please don’t. We want to live in peace,” one anonymous passerby said to a GlobalPost reporter.
Mary Gasser, a motor repair shop owner said, “We don’t mind living with Muslims together, but if we do, then the government should not interfere in our business because government is the one that incites tensions between us.”
Nazlet Ebeid’s residents say they are afraid, that they live every day with worry.
“I have a feeling that I might be next after Maspero,” said Eid Adlee, a village resident.
The head of Nazlet Ebeid’s church, Father Yuhanna Bushra, spoke about the village’s nature, and like so many priests interviewed for this article went out of his way to deny any sort of tension between Christians and Muslims.
When the church’s guards spoke candidly about how Christians feel discriminated against in Egypt, Father Yuhanna interrupted the conversation and scolded them asking them not talk until the end.
Yuhanna was asked what the residents thought of the way Egypt’s ruling council has handled religious tension. He smiled coolly, saying, “Everything is the news.”
“We pray for everyone, we prayed after the Qiddissin church bomb blast took place, we prayed when Maspero took place, we always pray that God makes this country safe for everyone,” the priest concluded.
From the bustling urban sprawl of Cairo to the integrated but tense industrial town of Mellawi to here in this small segregated village, almost all Coptic Egyptians interviewed for this article said they fear for the future. But just as quickly they told GlobalPost they were proud of their Christian faith and determined to defend it.
When asked their religion, Copts almost always roll up their sleeves to reveal small blue tattoos of Christian cross on their hands or wrists, a traditional marking of a concealed pride they have for their faith and its long history in Egypt.
When asked what they will do to face the discrimination that by most accounts is on the rise, many of the Coptic Christians replied with the same response: “God will help us out.”
This report was part of the ”Special Report” produced by the GlobalPost-Open Hands Initiative fellowship. Reporting assistance was provided by GlobalPost reporting fellows Lauren E. Bohn and Matt Negrin.
This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.