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Seeds of Survival

Coptic farmers under assault

On a warm spring night in 2011, Atef Labib, his wife and their 20-year-old daughter cowered in fear on the roof of their house. For three days, sectarian clashes had engulfed their predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Abu Qurqas, a village in Upper Egypt. Unsure of what would happen if they left their home, the Christian family went into hiding. Cut off from the outside world, they ran short of food and water. Gripped by fear, every loud noise felt like the harbinger of death.

On the fourth night, Mr. Labib’s son-in-law and a friend burst into the house. Violence was building, they said, and the family had to leave immediately. The three moved as quickly as possible, gathering what they could and escaping into the night.

The warning was prophetic. Hours after the family fled, a mob set upon the house that had been in Mr. Labib’s family for generations. They pillaged it, destroying the family’s meager possessions, and set the house ablaze.

Later, when the family returned to inspect the damage, the house was unrecognizable. Um Abanob, Mr. Labib’s wife, looked around and fell into hysterics.

“I kept screaming and crying, I was sick and weak,” she remembers. But there was no waking from this nightmare. Their world had been turned upside down.

“We never imagined that could have happened to us. How can we feel safe anymore?” Mr. Labib asks.

Muslim extremists vandalized some 70 Christian homes in Abu Qurqas in a week of clashes that began on 18 April. The struggles of this small Catholic farming community of 6,000 located about 160 miles south of Cairo mirror the events taking place in Coptic communities across the country (ethnic Egyptian Christians are known as Copts, which derives from the Greek, “Aigyptios,” meaning Egyptian Christian). And though the Labib’s situation is extreme, their story is representative of the perils facing many of Upper Egypt’s Coptic families in these turbulent times.

Since the January 2011 revolution that toppled Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, sectarian attacks in the country’s south have mushroomed. These days, Egypt’s Copt minority, which makes up roughly 10 percent of the population, feels a sense of anxiety as never before. Amid the general atmosphere of instability, rising prices and chronic shortages, the threat of extremist Muslim groups — both in organized politics and on the streets — has triggered sectarian attacks, along with a fear that the next bout of violence is just around the corner.

“They worry about everything related to stability; they don’t feel secure,” says the pastor of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Abu Qurqas, Father Haidar. “This is their own country — they were born here, but they don’t feel safe.

“It’s the situation of Christians in the whole country,” he adds, “not just the situation of this village.”

The clashes in Abu Qurqas started as many other sectarian incidents in Egypt have begun, with an everyday squabble. According to one account, a Muslim bus driver became incensed over a speed bump erected in front of a wealthy Copt’s home. An argument spiraled into a violent clash that sparked riots. Violence swept through the village. By the end of the night, dozens were injured and two Muslims were dead.

Residents say the riots lasted for almost a week as Muslim gangs roamed the village’s dirt-packed alleys threatening Christians, some of whom mobilized to fight back. Villagers say Muslim fundamentalists were bused in from outside the community to cause what they say was a methodical rampage targeting Christian homes. Government security services — army and police — did nothing to prevent the pillaging.

Three days into the clashes, Upper Egypt’s military prosecutor arrested 12 Christians and 8 Muslims on charges of “murder, rioting, damaging public utilities and spreading panic among citizens,” according to the local media. Three months later, a judge found all 12 Copts guilty and sentenced them to life in prison. The Muslims were acquitted and released.

The verdict reveals much about the country’s judicial system. It gives credence to Christian fears that not only will security services not protect them, but that the courts are stacked against them. To their eyes, the courts will do nothing to bring perpetrators of violence against Christians to justice, and instead will focus the blame on the community itself.

Father Haidar says this lack of accountability and justice has led many to be even more fearful, staying home and engaging even less with the society around them.

“They have been through many challenges and struggles since the revolution,” he explains. “They have lost many things — material things, as well as spiritual and psychological things,” he says of his parish community. And this loss bleeds into their faith.

“It’s not only in their daily life, it’s also in their spiritual aspects — their beliefs. We need to convince them God is with them and going to help.”

Though the Coptic Catholic parish has been the pillar of the community in Abu Qurqas, there is little it can do in these trying times except accompany its members. Resources are few. The parish continues to hold weekly classes and activities. Volunteers bring meals to the poor and have set up a subsidized medical clinic to serve the community, Christian and Muslim. The first priority, however, was to take care of the families of the men arrested and sentenced for inciting the clashes.

“The church couldn’t help a lot because there are many needs,” Father Haidar says. “As priests, we visit people and we give hope to families having problems.”

After the Labib’s home was sacked, Father Haidar visited the family. “The priests are good people. They understand the situation here, they visit with us and offer help if they can,” Atef Labib says. “We can’t imagine our lives without them. I know I’m alone, but I have a relationship with God. He provides for me when I need him.”

Mr. Labib was born in Abu Qurqas and took to working the land as his father and grandfather before him. He has five daughters and one son, and has tried to give them all a better life. But after his house was destroyed, all that work seemed for naught.

He made no court claims for the damaged property. Instead, after the violence subsided, the family moved back into their home. “I blocked the windows and made the doors thicker. We buttressed the doors with metal rods,” he says.

Fewer than three weeks after the family’s return, however, Mr. Labib decided to sell the house and move to another part of the village inhabited by other Christian families. They had come to fear meeting strangers on the streets of their quarter — which is mostly Muslim — and hoped they would find a more secure atmosphere among their own. “We needed to feel safe among people who might care for us,” he says.

But the situation grew direr. Due to the hurried nature of their move and local knowledge of their desperation, Mr. Labib sold his ancestors’ house for less than half its market value. The family had to take loans from friends in order to purchase and furnish their new home.

More than the material losses, the move took a considerable psychological toll. “Imagine living in one place all this time and leaving at a moment’s notice … and to know that it was out of my hands,” Mr. Labib says. “When I left my home, I knew all my neighbors. That house was all I knew and I was used to it. When I moved, even though there are Copts around me, I’m not close to them.”

Sitting next to him on the couch of their threadbare new home, Mr. Labib’s son Abanob nods hearing his father’s story. “I didn’t expect that kind of behavior from people,” the 21-year-old explains. As a result of the trauma, he’s begun to limit his interactions with people he doesn’t know. “I know I should be careful when I speak to new people,” he says.

Caution and anxiety have pervaded the entire community, whether people were directly targeted by the violence or not. “It affects their travel, their communications with other people, and also their relations to the church,” Father Haidar says. In the past, on holidays and celebrations, the church would be crammed with people. But these days, attendance is much lower. People stay home to guard their houses; they avoid taking dark streets at night during the village’s frequent power outages.

That fear is anchored in reality — during the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, security services across the country melted away. Though they have since returned to the streets, they remain mostly inactive. The rise of political Islam, many here say, has led to the emergence of an uglier version of communal life in rural Egypt.

“Before the Muslim Brotherhood era, all people used to love and care for each other. After that, they showed how to hate — they showed extremism and fanaticism,” Mr. Labib says. “There are good Muslims, but there are also extremists who show hate.”

Every day, Atef Labib rises early and rides his donkey to the plot of land he rents outside the village, where he farms soybeans and corn. He moves from row to row, hunched over, softly tapping his hoe to the earth, separating the crops and tilling the land. Dressed in white, he cuts a sharp figure against the small green shoots, his sinewy body hunched over the land. At noon, when the scorching sun is high overhead, he comes home to rest, returning to the field in the afternoon to continue his work.

But more than two years after the move, the family is still trying to rebuild and the shadow of the past looms large. Mr. Labib spent his savings and borrowed money to furnish the family’s new home. Furniture, kitchenware and appliances — in particular a new refrigerator — cost the family a small fortune.

When their new home was finished, Mr. Labib had limited money left to invest in his field; he could not afford enough seeds and fertilizer to make full use of his land. Without sufficient fertilizer, he grew weak plants and yielded a weak harvest. His earnings were low. It launched a vicious circle of poverty and debt the family is still struggling to break.

“Now, agriculture is very hard. It takes a lot of work and the rent is so high. It takes all the money that we get,” Mr. Labib explains. Rent on farming land has increased almost $300 per plot since the revolution. Now Mr. Labib pays 9,000 EGP (about $1,285) per year for roughly one acre.

Egypt’s Christian farming community faces more than just prejudice; the country’s deteriorating economic situation impacts everyone. Fertilizer has grown more expensive and shortages have forced men such as Mr. Labib to buy from the black market, where the price has more than doubled. The price of seed has increased, while the scarcity of diesel fuel has made pumping water from nearby canals to irrigate the fields more expensive. On top of that, the price of crops is anything but stable.

“Even if the price of crops goes up, the rent for the land and the price of seeds and fertilizer goes up, too,” Mr. Labib says of the industry’s volatility.

Near his plot of land, families toil the fields, but Mr. Labib works alone. As with many others in this community, the Labibs sent their son outside the village to seek a better life. Abanob works in Cairo in an aluminum workshop. Mr. Labib’s grandchildren attend universities in other major cities in Egypt.

For the subsistence farmers of Egypt, the profession seems to be dying off as children of landowners and day laborers move into urban areas to pursue other livelihoods. “You can see agriculture has no future. Almost all my friends tried to get other jobs if they could find them,” Abanob explains.

Even before the present turbulence, many wanted to leave Egypt entirely. Abanob applied for visas to travel three times, but was refused. He plans to try again soon.

“If he left, I would wish him luck to have a good job. He has a hard time in his job in Cairo, and abroad he would have better life conditions,” Um Abanob says of her son’s plans. It’s hard for a mother to argue when Egypt’s situation grows increasingly worrisome by the day.

Atef Labib nods as his son describes his hopes to leave Egypt. “It is a hard lot, here,” he says.

Sarah Topol is a Cairo-based journalist whose writing has been published in The Atlantic, Esquire, Foreign Policy, Harper’s, New Republic and The New York Times.

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