- - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

ABO KORKAS, Egypt — In a sparse, gray room with little but two pictures of Jesus on the walls, Mona Hanna sits on the floor, remembering a night nine months ago when her house was set on fire by Muslim men brandishing guns and knives.

Living in a nation marked by ongoing bouts of sectarian violence and no government protection, Ms. Hanna fears for the future of her town, Abo Korkas, which is tucked within the larger Upper Egyptian city of Minya and is home to both Muslims and Christians.

Ms. Hanna, like many others here, said prospects for her community are grim.

“Our house is closed now, and Christians on that side of town left,” she said, referring to how she and nine other families moved out of their homes after the attack.

The isolated village of Abo Korkas lies 150 miles south of Cairo, amid untouched patches of fertile green land, and likely looks little different from the way it did nearly 2,000 years ago, when Christianity blossomed here under Roman rule.

The Christian community in Egypt has dwindled since the birth of Islam about 1,400 years ago, but Minya remains one of the Egyptian cities with a large population of Coptic Christians, making up about 40 percent of its more than 2 million inhabitants. Copts, an Anglicized Arabic word for Egyptian, share many theological beliefs of Roman Catholicism.

Minya also is a stronghold of Gemaa Islamiyya, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that attacked Coptic Christians, government agencies and tourists throughout the 1990s. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the hard-line Salafist al-Noor party are the most popular parties here among Muslims.

Behind the quiet and quaint facade of Abo Korkas, Christian residents who live amid a labyrinth of dirt roads say they are worried.

Peace was long a pillar of this town until a group of men who are believed to be Salafi Muslims set fire to the homes of Christians like Ms. Hanna’s and smashed stone walls, leaving 10 properties in soot-stained rubble.

Security forces arrested 27 Christians in the April 19 attack, residents said. Ten remain in prison, and no one knows when, or whether, they will be released.

No one can agree why the attack happened.

Some victims say it was because they lived near a mosque. Muslims argue that it was in retaliation for the deaths of two Muslim men who they say were shot by Christians, although Christians say medical reports fail to support that claim.

Others say the attack was prompted by a personal feud between a Christian politician and a former member of the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak and that it was staged to look like an assault prompted by bigotry.

Regardless of the reason, sectarian strains between Christians and Muslims, who live on the south side of Abo Korkas and make up roughly one-third of the town’s population, have risen since the revolution toppled Mr. Mubarak nearly a year ago.

“For Christians, the revolution was a bad event,” said Magdi Kamel, arrested in April with his brother, who remains in prison. “Before Mubarak [was ousted], things were quieter, things were better for us.”

Story Continues →