Mina Danial at a sit-in in Cairo's Tahrir Square (Photo: Eduardo Castaldo)
A year ago this week, activist Mina Danial was one of 29 people killed during an attack on a march near Maspero in the Egyptian capital Cairo. Yasmine Fathi reports for Ahram Online:
Tarek El-Tayeb, 25, had always hated Christians. He was known among his friends as Tarek “El-Salafi” as he followed the ultraorthodox school of Islam.
"I joined the Salafist school of Islam when I was 13 years old," remembers El-Tayeb. "According to my ideology, Christians were heretics and being a friend with any of them was a grave sin."
All of this changed when he met Coptic Christian activist Mina Danial.
The two bumped into each other in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square during last year’s 18-day uprising.
They met the morning after the 28 January "Friday of Rage", when Hosni Mubarak’s security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at protesters. Danial had been shot in the leg.
"Are you injured?" asked El-Tayeb.
"Yes," laughed Mina. "But it's not a big deal."
"No, it's not ok," responded El-Tayeb. "You need to clean that wound."
El-Tayeb insisted and took Mina to the nearby Qasr Al-Eini Hospital. After that, the two, became inseparable.
"Mina and I didn’t go through the normal stages of friendship," remembers El-Tayeb. "After the first few minutes we became like brothers."
Despite the closeness of the two, El-Tayeb still struggled to overcome his discomfort at having a Christian friend.
"I never told him how I felt about Christians," says El-Tayeb. "He would sometimes tell me that he loved me and I would respond by saying that I hate him. It was just hard for me to get rid of these fanatical ideas all at once. It took time."
Since becoming a Salafist, El-Tayeb made sure he was civil to his Christian neighbors and colleagues, however, being friends with a Christian was simply out of the question. Danial was different.
"I just could not hate him. For the first time in my life, I found that I could not hate a Christian. I could not put this barrier of religion between me and him," El-Tayeb explains, "The emotions I felt towards him destroyed all of these shackles. I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t understand it now. What is it about Danial that made him have this impact on people?"
Mina was special, his friends say, unique, charismatic and impossible to hate. He was a cheerful young man, who was always smiling and had the uncanny ability to win people over.
Mina, the youngest of seven, was born in the town of Sanabo in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Assiut. He was raised mainly by his sister Mary, 21 years his senior. He was so close to Mary that he called her "mum."
"He was born at ten in the morning,” recalls Mary, who looks strikingly similar to her brother, smiling at the memory. "He was such a beautiful child. For me, he was a son and not a brother."
The Danials were the only Christian family in a street of Muslims.
Life was good initially, Muslims and Christians got along well, says Mary.
However things changed in the mid-1980s when sectarian tension began to spread throughout Egypt, as ultraorthodox Islamic groups gained influence. Life for Christians changed forever.
"I remember we were a group of seven girlfriends living in the same street. We were very close," Marry says. "Then one day, I walked to the bus stop as usual to meet them and I noticed that they turned their backs on me and wouldn’t say hello. Fundamentalist groups had succeeded in filling people’s minds with hate."
Slowly, the gap between Muslims and Christians increased, Mary says.
Attacks on Christian homes became common. The Danials were not spared: several members of the Danial family were attacked. Mary recalls stones being hurled at her when she walked to church.
One day, a member of the Danial family got into a fight with an Islamist, after the latter demanded that he turn off the Christian Mass that was playing on the radio. The fight escalated and the family went to lodge a complaint at the local police station.
They were shocked when the police responded by arresting nine members of the Danial family instead.
"The fact that they arrested us just because we complained, opened my eyes and made me realise that the regime was collaborating with these fanatics," explains Mary.
By the time Mina was born in 1991, the damage to Muslim and Christian relations had already been done.
The Christians now lived in what Mary called "Church isolation."
"The church became a state within a state," says Mary. "It ran supermarkets, hospitals, clubs, picnics, lectures, everything. Our whole life became centered around the church."
The violence continued. When Mina was two years old, the family decided to pack up and head to Cairo.
They settled in the suburb of Ezzbet El-Nakhl, where Mina lived until his death.
A quiet child, he spent most of his time with his sister Mary, who used to take him, along with his other sister Sherry, who was four years older than him, to church.
"Everyone at church envied me for having him. He was so quiet and sensitive. He never whined and would not ask me to buy him anything because he would worry that I would not have enough money."
Proud of his Pharaonic heritage, Mina dreamed of studying archeology one day but his results were not good enough. He opted for a Bachelor of Commerce instead.
"He wasn’t very happy though and always dreamed that one day he would find a way to enroll in the college he wanted," Mary says.
In his teens, Mina slowly began to get involved in politics.