A Storm Within a Storm: Christians in Egypt and One Family's Scar

Egypt's southern province of Minya is home to the country's largest concentration of Christians. The governorate is also an Islamist stronghold, with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood enjoying much support. The governor of Minya, Mustafa Kamel Issa, a Brotherhood member, has met with many Christian leaders, and frequently speaks of the importance of tolerance. But critics say the new government not only fails to acknowledge the gravity of rising tensions, but denies it's a problem. “We really don’t have these issues in Egypt,” said Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a spokesperson for the foreign relations committee of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “Some conflict or tension is exaggerated by the media to divide Egypt, to ruin the revolution…these are old tactics used by the old regime.” Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Ayman Labib, a Christian, was beaten to death almost two years ago by Muslim classmates in a murder case that punctuates Egypt's longstanding tensions between Muslims and Christians. Photographs of Ayman line the family's small apartment. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

The family says they've always been a bit reclusive, but since Ayman's murder, they've become even more withdrawn. "Everyone in the city knows what's happened. They give us looks," says Ayman's mother Evon. "Sometimes they say 'sorry' and other times they just turn away, not knowing what to say." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

The family says Ayman was a devout Christian, often staying at church until late hours. He wore a cross on a chain to school everyday, which his family says was a source of ridicule among classmates. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Ayman's older brother Antonius stands near the charcoal log of grades the meticulous high-schooler used to chart his progress and a possible way out of his rundown, forgotten village in rural Egypt. "He was the smartest in his class, and everyone was jealous," recalls Antonius. "He wanted to get out of here, to make something of his life. Not many do." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Ayman's mother, Evon, looks at her late son's still-made bed. She often sits in his pristine corner of the room he shared with his three brothers. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Ayman's father Nabeel once had a sparkle in his eye, his other children say, but now it’s gone. Though the 51-year-old is unflappable while his wife easily crumbles into tears at the mention of her son’s name, they all agree he’s taken it the hardest. “You lose your country, you lose your son,” he says. “But sometimes I feel joy knowing he’s with God. He’s better now, than he’s ever had it…than any of us down here will ever have it.” Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Nadi Atef, writer and activist from Ayman’s hometown, has reported on the family’s case for the past year and a half and says he was thrown into jail for a week for drawing attention to the local government’s negligence in handling it. He and others claim the municipality, which declined to comment on the case, had first reported Ayman’s death as a heart attack. He says they’ve since changed the cause to the beating Ayman received. The walls of Atef’s office sketch Egypt’s dysfunctional transition to democracy. His front room is lined with photographs of himself, bright-eyed and ecstatic, protesting Mubarak’s regime. He’s added more recent pictures of himself protesting new President Mohamed Morsi’s rule in the same square, but his face is now rinsed with jaded exhaustion, his eyes dimmer. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Youssef Sidhoum, editor of the Coptic newspaper al-Watani, says the situation for Egypt's Copts has worsened following the country's revolution. He bemoans a revival of political Islam and a failure of the ruling regime to enforce the rule of law or to offer Copts protection. Though Copts comprise a considerable voting bloc, political analysts agree that Copts organizing under a Copt political umbrella would be political suicide. Integration is the key, says Sidhoum. “As a Coptic Christian living Egypt, deep down in my heart there lies a wound,” he says. “It has festered over more than three decades as the situation only gets worse.” Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

The family visits Ayman's gravesite, a 15-minute cab ride from their apartment, several times a week. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Nabeel tries to pray at his son's grave every day. He's etched the word "Martyr" all over his son's memorial. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Ayman's younger brother Youssef is mentally handicapped. "He was my best friend," the 14 year old explains. "He always said I could do just as well in school as he did. I'm trying." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Though Ayman's murderers were recently sentenced to two years in prison, Evon says justice has hardly been served for her family and for most of the country. "They murdered him, and nothing’s changed. The country, my family…they both will never be the same." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013.

Ayman Labib, an 18-year-old Christian, was beaten to death almost two years ago by Muslim classmates in a murder case that punctuates the protracted sectarian tension between Christians and Muslims in southern Egypt, where many of Egypt’s Christians live. Two boys have been convicted of his death and are now serving three-year prison sentences. But for a forgotten community in Egypt’s hinterlands, there’s a feeling that justice has not been served.

Since the uprising that ousted former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, sporadic but intense sectarian demonstrations across Egypt reflect rising fears in Egypt’s Coptic community (who make up an estimated 5 to 10 percent of Egypt’s total population) that the uprising has empowered a predominantly Muslim Egyptian society that is at best indifferent to the Christian minority’s concerns.

With a new president from the Muslim Brotherhood and a new constitution that critics say offers religious minorities, especially Copts, little to no assurances, existential fear has pervaded villages like the Labib family's.

Christians in Egypt, especially in the rural south, have long complained of systemic discrimination and violence. Among a long list list of grievances, critics say Copts are woefully underrepresented in Egypt’s military, judiciary, diplomatic corps, academia and almost all electoral bodies. Christians face state-imposed restrictions on the right to build and maintain churches, regulations that Muslims don’t face when building mosques.

Most recently, a sectarian dispute outside of Cairo left four Christians and a Muslim dead. Over the next several days, clashes continued in Cairo, culminating in an attack on Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral, which left two dead and 90 wounded.

According to state media, President Mohammed Morsi called the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, telling him, “I consider any aggression against the cathedral an aggression against me personally.”

But few Christians are left reassured.