14 June 2009
Thousands of the villagers of Deir Abu-Hennes in Mallawi, Minya, in Upper Egypt took to the streets last Thursday to demonstrate against an official decree addressed to the Authentication and Publicisation Authority by the Justice Ministry to have the name of their village changed to Wadi al-Neinaa, literally Mint Valley. The day before, they gathered signatures and sent telefaxes and messages of complaints to the local and Cairo authorities protesting against the move. The decree was issued without mentioning any explanation or reason for the change.
The village, whose name of Deir Abu-Hennes translates into the Monastery of St John, is home to a 35,000-strong entirely Coptic population. Its history goes back to ancient times, and was one of the spots where the Holy Family is said to have resided for a short while on its Biblical flight into Egypt in the first century. 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 East bank in feluccas whose sails are adorned with paintings of the Holy Family in Egypt, where the celebration is held. The village is named after St John the Short who is believed to have established the first church there in 413.
Several of the villagers expressed their wrath at what they said was an attempt by Minya governor Ahmed Diaa’ Eddin to obliterate their Coptic identity, and wipe out an important part of the history of Egypt in general and the village in particular.
Coptic NGOs and Egyptian rights groups have asked for the cancellation of the decree and for the village to retain its original name. Minya is among the regions in Egypt where sectarian tension runs highest.
Translator: Marina / copy editor: Samia
Word count: 332