At midnight last Monday, five days into the demonstrations conducted by the villagers of Deir Abu-Hennes in Minya, Upper Egypt, to protest against changing the name of their village, Minya governor Ahmed Diaa’ Eddin issued a decree stipulating that the village name would not be changed.
The problem began the previous Wednesday when the villagers were informed of an official decree to have the name of their village changed from Deir Abu-Hennes (Monastery of St John [the Short]) to Wadi al-Neinaa, literally Mint Valley. The decree was addressed to the Authentication and Publicisation Authority by the Justice Ministry, and mentioned no explanation whatsoever for the name change. The move sent shock waves through the 35,000-strong entirely Coptic population of the village, the history of which goes back to ancient times, and which was one of the spots where the Holy Family is said to have resided while on its Biblical flight into Egypt in the first century.
On Thursday, thousands took to the streets to protest the name change. They gathered signatures and sent telefaxes and messages of complaints to the local and Cairo authorities demanding that the name—which goes back to the fifth century—of their village should not be changed.
The region’s undeniable significance as a historical site, Ashraf Esheiry, MP for Mallawi said, urged him to present an urgent report on the issue to Parliament. Mr Esheiry’s report was scheduled for discussion last Tuesday, in presence of the ministers of justice, local development, and Minya governor. The village name, Mr Esheiry stressed, strongly reflected the villagers’ identity in terms of their being Coptic, and in their being affiliated to that name for some 16 centuries now.
Obliterating Coptic identity
This was not the first attempt to change the village’s name. In the1970s, the name was changed into Wadi al-Neinaa. But the villagers revolted and the original name was restored by a presidential decree. Two years ago, there was another attempt to change the village’s name, but it was rejected by the local council of Mallawi, the local government authority concerned with approving name changes in case of streets or villages.
The Deir Abu-Hennes villagers were shocked at the recent ministerial decree, especially considering that it was issued without the approval of the local authorities. Several questions begged answers. What reason can there be for the name change, and in whose interest was this move? How can the recent ministerial order annul a previous presidential decree? Even though the order was issued by the Justice Minister, the move—according to the villagers—appeared to be fraught with irregularities.
Several of the villagers talked to Watani expressing their wrath at what they said was a move that would serve to obliterate their Coptic identity and wipe out an important part of the history of Egypt in general and the village in particular.
The lawyer Ramses Ra’ouf al-Naggar was preparing to take all the necessary legal measures to secure the right of the villagers to retain the original name of their village. He had been assigned by some 2000 residents of the village to represent them. Last Sunday Mr Naggar met Minya governor General Ahmed Diaa’ Eddin who told him that the ministerial decree was “stillborn” and would not be put into effect. Mr Naggar, however, said that unless the decree was annulled by another official decree, it remained in force. He promised to proceed with all the legal procedures until the original name was restored.
General Diaa’ Eddin signed the decree 924/2009 restoring the name of Deir Abu-Hennes after midnight on Monday. Mallawi Bishopric, to which the parish of Deir Abu-Hennes is affiliated, was informed and handed the official decree. The bishopric in turn informed the village elders, sending them an original hard copy of the decree in the early hours of Tuesday. Since Deir Abu-Hennes is on the East bank of the Nile and is accessible only by ferry, a special envoy was dispatched from the bishopric to the village by boat with the decree. The villagers were elated; they produced thousands of photocopies of the decree and circulated them around amid general rejoicing and jubilation that continued till sunrise on Tuesday.
Fr Yussab Hishmat of the local church commented that the decree had to be approved by the Justice Minister to be effective and not liable to invalidation, as was the case of the 1979 decree.
The scent of history
The villagers of Deir Abu-Hennes assert that the name of their village goes back to the 5th century. It is named after St John the Short who is believed to have established the first church there in 413; the church stands in the village to this day. The feast of St John the Short is celebrated every year on 30 October (20 Baba on the Coptic calendar), when a procession of deacons carries his icon along the streets of the village singing hymns and praises.
Deir Abu-Hennes was cited in several old manuscripts, as well as in Description de L’Egypte which was written by the scientific mission that accompanied Napoleon’s military campaign against Egypt in 1798. Tradition has it that the region was one of the places visited by the Holy Family during its flight to Egypt.
The entire region is rich in Coptic history and is famous for the countless incidents of Coptic martyrdom in fourth century. A story circulated among the residents of the region is that when Anba Gregorious, the late Bishop of Coptic Studies and Research, visited the area in the 1980s, he took his shoes off as he disembarked the ferry. When asked why he did that he replied: “How can I step with my shoes on land that was one day soaked with martyrs’ blood?”
A large celebration is held twice a year at a spot called Kom Maria (Maria’s Hill) to mark this memory. Thousands of Christians and Muslims, Egyptians and non-Egyptian visitors—including dignitaries and ambassadors—attend this celebration which is conducted by the residents of Deir Abu-Hennes, the local church, and Mallawi Bishopric. It usually involves crossing from Mallawi on the West Bank of the Nile to Deir Abu-Hennes on the East Bank in feluccas whose sails are adorned with paintings of the Holy Family in Egypt, where the celebration is held.