- - 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.”

During the revolution, many Christians thought a new government would help quell repressive tactics and create opportunities for equal rights, but the ongoing political turbulence has not improved the situation for Christians.

One of the main concerns plaguing this village is the lack of a proper security network that might help prevent more attacks. Police have largely been absent from Egypt’s streets since they were withdrawn in January 2011, after deadly clashes with protesters.

“See this?” asks lawyer Amir Sabry, pointing to a herd of horses, donkeys and cows being led alongside Egypt’s Agricultural Road, which heads north into Cairo. “They are headed home from the fields because at night there are thieves.”

Michael Mounir, a Coptic Christian political leader and president of the Al-Hayat Party, says Christians are not used to living without protection.

“They’re living under constant fear and repression,” he said.

Mr. Mounir is a rising star in Egyptian politics among the Christian minority, which makes up roughly 10 percent of the nation’s 80 million people.

On a local level, many Christians feel hopeless. Most blame the ruling interim government - headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and a group of generals - for clashes in October during a demonstration held by mostly Christian protesters that left at least 24 dead.

“We’re all afraid,” said Shadia Leisha, whose husband was arrested during the April attack. “What the military does is a type of terrorism.”

Abo Korkas Christians claim that the military was working alongside Salafis in that attack. An online video of the violence shows men dressed in military uniforms standing by as men light fires and smash homes.

Some residents also say it is poor education that continues to torment the town. Illiteracy rates are high in Abo Korkas, with local residents citing figures that range between 60 percent and 75 percent.

“Christians think Muslims will attack again, but on the other side, the Muslims think Christians have guns in their churches,” said Fouli Ahmed Mohamed, a veterinarian and Muslim resident. “The problem that makes people not understand how to cope with each other is poverty and ignorance.”

Hope for better education and more opportunities brought many Egyptians to the polls in parliamentary elections that ended last week.

Islamists won the majority with about 70 percent of the seats in parliament, causing Christians more concern. The next parliament will have considerable influence in appointing a 100-member committee to draft a new constitution. Abo Korkas Christians make it clear that moderate Muslims do not worry them.

“They deal with us very well,” said Christian resident Refaat Ramzi.

Muslims who practice hard-line strains of Islam are the ones Christians fear.

Some Christians still say there is hope.

Mr. Mounir is from this town and recently became the first Coptic Christian to head a political party in Egypt in a testament to the freedoms permitted since the revolution last year.

“I believe that as a community, fate is in our hands,” Mr. Mounir said.

“We can either rally together, work together, or disintegrate and be fragmented. The Christian community in Egypt has withstood 1,400 years of Islam. The fact that we still have millions of Christians in Egypt speaks to that resiliency.”