July 23, 2008
Egyptian Villagers Resist Monastery's Growth
Muslims, Christians clash over desert, faith, and politics in Upper Egypt
IN UPPER EGYPT along the Nile, hundreds of miles south of Cairo, the growing population is scrambling over the scarce resources of land and water. Egypt's population is currently just over 80 million and if current trends continue, it will surpass 100 million by 2025. (By contrast, its neighbor Israel is not expected to have more than 10 million people by 2025.) In this region, there is an ancient monastery (and a contemporary church building) at Abu Fana (shown here above right). In late May, Abu Fana was the venue for much violence between Muslims and Coptic believers.
Here's an updated dispatch from our Cairo correspondent:
By Cornelis Hulsman
An attack on the monastery of Ab? F?n?, located roughly 200 miles south of the Egyptian capital Cairo, has prompted Coptic emigrant Christians in the West to demonstrate against Egyptian authorities.
On May 31, Muslims from neighboring villages burned monastic cells and a chapel on an area of disputed land, roughly one kilometer away from the old monastic buildings of Ab? F?n?. The fence surrounding the area was run over; water pumps and new crop plantations have been destroyed.
Three monks from the monastery were briefly kidnapped and ill treated. This resulted in all three monks requiring admission into the hospital for treatment. The governor of Minia, Ahmed Dia el-Din, considered the violence "criminal."
Police arrested 13 Muslims and two Christians who were involved in the fights and who have since been brought before the prosecutor-general. Additional policemen were positioned around the area prevent further conflicts.
Inhabitants of neighboring villages say there are pre-existing conflicts over land. Accusations directed against Christians of building a fence on areas of disputed land and of being behind the death of a Muslim were thrown around during these confrontations. They also believe Christians "always" get their way once news is published and demonstrations take place on their behalf in Western countries, which is further adding to the ill-feelings and tensions.
Governor Ahmed Dia el-Din found several police reports about disputes over land that span several years. Villagers living on the edge of the desert have been reclaiming desert land for at least 20 years.
The monastery itself has also greatly expanded in the past ten years. For many decades, only one monk resided there. Four years ago, there were six monks living in Ab? F?n?, while there are currently 18 monks residing in the monastery. They are assisted by tens of laymen who help in the reclamation of desert land. Around seven years ago they built a large cathedral. Due to this reclamation work, the land of the villages and that of the monastery now border each other.
Egypt suffers from overpopulation, encompassing 80 million inhabitants on an area that is roughly twice the size of New Jersey. The remaining area is desert. Land has become a scarce commodity over which conflicts can easily develop. More than 20 people have recently been killed in land conflicts between two Muslim families elsewhere in Egypt.
Conflicts over landownership mostly occur when documents proving ownership are not clear. Desert land belongs to the state; consequently, when someone wishes to purchase this land, they have to turn to the government to obtain the necessary permission.
This however, frequently does not happen and people will instead draft so-called "orfi" contracts, agreements between two parties that lack the proper registration with the government. It was in this fashion that the Ab? F?n? monastery obtained part of their land. Accordingly, the governor rejected the monastery's claim to posses valid land titles, and it is from this that the current conflict stems.
Egyptians clergy are known to have purchased land or built on vacant land by utilizing "orfi" contracts in order to avoid often difficult and time consuming government procedures. Egyptian Christians often accuse the government of favoring Muslim institutions and enacting bureaucratic obstacles for Christian projects.
Church leaders and monks will not seek violence in search of solutions for land conflicts. "But if it does come to fights," Coptic researcher Raed al-Sharqawi says, "it then results continuously in intense feelings of sympathy for Copts from parties in the West, which then in turn results in actual financial support for their monastery.
"Thus, conflicts can end up benefiting Christian projects in Egypt, yet at the same time such activism greatly harms the general climate of Muslims and Christians living together."
* * *
Cornelis Hulsman is editor-in-chief of Arab-West Report. The electronic magazine Arab-West Report sent a fact finding delegation consisting of Egyptians, a Dutchman, a German and a Korean, four Christians and two Muslims into the area to interview the governor, monks, Christian clergy, villagers, and sheikhs. For additional information see: www.arabwestreport.info