By Hannah Wilkinson
On 14 August, the headquarters of the Jesuits and Brothers Association was attacked by unknown assailants in a sectarian assault.
“At 10.30am, they began to attack our centre from one side and threw stones and molotov cocktails at our door,” said Magdi Asham, an information sector director for the organisation which operates the headquarters.
When the attackers failed to enter the complex, they left and returned in the afternoon to continue the attack. “They jumped over the wall carrying weapons… and shot the lock from the inside to allow the others to enter,” he said.
Asham claimed about 400 people entered the complex, which contains a church, a school, a nursery school, a library, a centre for the disabled and a theatre. “They stole our equipment like computers and cameras… after that they burned the building… and guarded the fire with their weapons so no one could extinguish it,” he said.
“I have never been so frightened in all my life. I was frightened to death” said Biman, a Jesuit priest who preferred not to give his full name and was present during the attack.
He confirmed Asham’s account of what happened. “They were in front of me, they had sticks, they had stones… they didn’t attack me, I call it a miracle, a blessing”.
At the time of the attack, Biman said, two disabled people were studying in one of the buildings. The attackers asked them to leave, but destroyed their wheelchairs. Though otherwise unharmed, the disabled pair were forced to vacate the premises using only their crutches.
Biman claimed that he and other members of staff at the centre called the local police a number of times during the attack to no avail.
When the police did come by, Biman complained they did not fire warning shots into the air to frighten away the attackers. Reports have since confirmed that police throughout Upper Egypt failed to protect churches and Christians.
Biman said they still had not received assistance. “Even now the police have not come to visit our place. They have not come to see how it was burned. We are guarding it day and night by ourselves.
“They are saying we are short of personnel, but these attacks are in targeted places, in very specific pockets, and yet the government did not help until now.”
Accustomed to growing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the region, Asham and Biman are nonetheless shocked by the destruction of a community resource which Asham claims served everyone in the area irrespective of religion.
According to Hassan el Geretly of El Warsha of the Cairo-based theatre troupe that works with the Jesuits and Brothers Association, the centre’s theatre was “the best theatre in Upper Egypt” that was built over 20 years ago with the help of Dutch funding. “It started as a big school theatre, very unprofessional; we turned it into a professional black box theatre,” he said.
The theatre played a crucial community role on a national and local level, both through its individual ventures, and its 20-year collaboration with El Warsha.
Together, they are concerned with “finding a better education pattern using the arts generally and specifically theatre as an educative process. [They] tried to find new methods for children to express their feelings and thoughts” said Asham. Since 1996, the two organisations have been training local children in visual arts, theatre, and cinema. Their most recent joint project, Contact, was to use interactive theatre to discuss issues related to sectarian tension and gender discrimination.
“It was supposed to be implemented in 10 villages where we have these kind of problems, and to involve 25 young people in each village” said Asham. “When people create a play and act it they will be confronted with their own attitude towards these issues and then think about the consequences of that way of thinking.”
The programme has had to be put on hold due to on-going disturbances in the region.
The theatre also aimed to change the image of the arts in the area, where there was a negative image of the arts as haram. Through presenting performances from all over the country, including several plays by El Warsha and performances by Egyptian bands, they seemed to have won over audiences in their local area. According to Asham: “[They have] a diversity of audiences and a good reputation in the community.”
“Now we have a burned building, burned cars, and destroyed and stolen equipment,” he said. Nonetheless, Asham is determined to continue the centre’s work, in spite of the attack and in spite of what Biman describes as worsening sectarian tensions in the region.
Biman said he found it difficult to comprehend that sectarian tensions have appeared in such a way against his organisation. “Eighty five percent of students in the school are Muslims,” he said. “Yet the attackers had real anger in their faces, as if I came from another world and didn’t deserve to live. They wanted revenge, as if I had attacked them and not the other way around”.
“The situation has become very polarised” he explained. “Muslims and Christians who know each other are friends. But between people who don’t know each other, on the buses and at the market, there is no brotherly feeling, and this has frightened us. Since Morsi was ousted the Christian women have not dared to come out of their houses.”
Muslim-Christian relations in the neighbourhood do not appear to have dissolved due to this polarisation, and the centre seems to enjoy a degree of continued support. Asham tells of a local man from a Muslim organisation that offered the centre EGP 10,000 from his own pocket in order to help them to rebuild.
El Geretly finds these community divisions incompatible with his vision of Egypt, especially in the context of the country’s cultural history.
“El Warsha is also doing a storytelling project with children from Siwa who don’t even speak Egyptian Arabic as their first language; we are doing a project with Nubian singers.”
In a country with such a diversity of cultures and creeds, labelling the central cultural division as being between Christians and Muslims is to create an artificial cultural binary, which is then exploited for the sake of violence and intimidation. “You can hardly tell the difference between Muslims and Christians, even in the way they talk about God; religions adapt to fit their cultural surroundings,” Geretly argued.
“There are other more interesting divisions to be working on,” said Geretly. “The rich and poor, the income divide – that’s the absurdity of it”.