Segregation By The Nile, When Egypt's Christians And Muslims Share A Village

In villages in Minya, Christians and Muslims are confined to separate districts, a condition that feeds into sectarian dynamics.

A Coptic district in Ezbet al-Forn in Minya
A Coptic district in Ezbet al-Forn in Minya
Heba Afify

EZBET AL-FORN — 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 face south; they face north.

"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."

77 incidents of sectarian violence have occurred in Minya alone since 2011.

"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.

In some parts of Minya, illiteracy reaches 50%.

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% of Minya.

Malak also points to illiteracy as a key factor in fueling this polarization. In some parts of Minya, illiteracy reaches 50%, 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 %. 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.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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