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As Egypt's presidential election presents extraordinary challenges, GlobalPost offers this continuing series to shed light on how the country will move forward under its first-ever civilian head of state and how the soon-to-be-drafted constitution will protect civil rights in a new Egypt. 

Coptic Christians endure a painful year in Egypt

A series of deadly attacks in 2011 — most recently the death of a 17-year-old boy — suggest sectarian strife is only getting worse.

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.