Seeds of Survival

A Family Faces Fear in Egypt

by Sarah Topol with photographs by David Degner

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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.”

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