MAR GIRGIS MONASTERY, Egypt — There was no mention of churches torched or Christians killed, but the prayer neatly written on a tiny piece of paper and placed atop an icon of St. George in the chapel of a desert monastery left no doubt about the growing fear and despair of Egypt's Coptic Christians.
"Oh Lord, for the sake of all the saints of the church, raise high the banner of the cross and vanquish our enemies, the enemies of the church," it read. "Make our enemies realize their weakness, foil their actions against us, bring joy to our hearts, increase our profit and make us victorious."
There were folded slips of paper all over the icon of the Christian knight rearing on his steed and skewering a dragon with his spear. Tucked into its frame, piled on a small table below it, spilling on the floor around it, all pleas to God for health, fertility, wealth, happiness – and protection. Copts stood motionless in prayer before the image. Others broke into hymns praising his valor. Wanting to linger in the saint's presence, families picnicked on the chapel floor, gossiping and eating sandwiches.
The past week, hundreds of thousands of Copts from across the country flocked to the monastery of Mar Girgis, as St. George is known in Arabic, in one of the biggest and most exuberant events of the year for Egypt's Christians. The annual pilgrimage at the walled monastery in the deserts of southern Egypt overlooking the Nile is a festival of faith, a time to pay homage to the 3rd Century saint who is one of the most revered figures of Christianity's oldest Church.
It is also an opportunity for Christians to exult in their identity in an atmosphere away from the daily discrimination – large and small, subtle and blatant – that they say they increasingly face in this nation where the Muslim majority has been growing more conservative for decades.
At this year's pilgrimage, Christians' sense of siege is stronger than ever, after Muslim hardliners gained political dominance, vowing to rule Egypt by Islamic law. Many Christians are convinced they are enduring the worst sectarian persecution any of them can remember. Some even speak of an imminent second "age of martyrdom," recalling the era of persecution of Christians under Roman rule that remains burned into Copts' historic memory nearly 2,000 years later.
"Without a divine intervention that is both visible and strong, I think we are moving toward a confrontation that will have grave ramifications for Egypt," said Bishop Bieman, a charismatic church leader in the southern province of Qena. "I am not worried about us Christians on the long term, but I am seriously concerned about what happens to us on the short term. Efforts to impose a religious state are accelerating."
The Church itself is undergoing a major transition: A new pope, Tawadros II, is to be enthroned in Cairo on Sunday, succeeding Shenouda III, the man who led the Church for 40 years and was revered by Copts as their protector until his death in March.
Egypt's Christian minority, about 10 percent of the population of more than 80 million, has long complained of discrimination. But Christians fear things are reaching a crisis point since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago and the subsequent rise to power of Islamists.
Over the past 20 months, dozens of Christians have been killed, churches torched or vandalized, and Christian-owned stores trashed and looted. In several villages, Christian families were driven out of their homes after personal disputes turned into anti-Christian riots. Ultraconservative Muslim clerics preach that Muslims cannot be friends with Christians or frown on overt shows of Christianity, an attitude that soaks down to villages and towns where Christians live. In recent weeks, there have been several cases of Muslim women forcibly cutting the hair of Christian girls, who unlike almost all Egyptian Muslim women don't wear headscarves.
"We are like gold, we must be burned so we can become purer," said Romani Abdullah Fakhouri, a 47-year-old math teacher who has been volunteering to help at the pilgrimage since he was 11.
He bitterly recalled an incident of anti-Christian sentiment that his firstborn child, Peter, confronted several years ago.
A third grader at the time, Peter came home crying and kept asking his parents what was wrong with being a Christian. His best friend at school, a Muslim boy called Moaz, refused to drink the water Peter brought him from home because his mother had told him not to.
"I tried to explain it away. I told him perhaps his mother thought that because we are poor our water may not be clean," said Fakhouri, a slender man with the bronze complexion of Egyptians of the deep south. "I was very upset."
Bishop Marcus told how his diocese in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra narrowly averted a violent clash between Christians and Muslims when Islamic hardliners recently took over a Christian-owned plot of land and declared it a mosque. The hardliners prayed on the site three times as tensions grew, until Muslim residents persuaded them to pack up and go.
Among the crowds at Mar Girgis, 400 miles (660 kilometers) south of Cairo, Copts find a place where they don't have to worry about disapproving looks from ultraconservative Muslims. They don't have to be cautious about saying or doing something that could be construed as an offense to Islam. They don't have to try to blend in.
Men and women flaunted the cross tattoos on the inside of their wrists, which these days they often keep discreet. Others showed off more elaborate tattoos of their favorite saints on their arms.
A 6-month-old child cried as a cross was tattooed on his tiny wrist. Almost all Egyptian Christians have the wrist cross as a sign of pride in their identity, and many families had their children tattooed at the pilgrimage, taking advantage of discount prices on offer.
Thousands slept for days in tents outside the monastery walls. Hymns blared from loudspeakers, along with announcements of engagements, marriages and deaths. The pilgrimage is a prime opportunity for young Copts to meet potential spouses.
Teenage girls in their Sunday best lined up to receive communion in the monastery's small, multi-domed chapel, where the saint's remains are said to be interred.
Here, everything is a blessing. Many spoke matter-of-factly about St. George's healing powers, and families brought their sick and elderly, hoping for a miracle cure. Outside, women stepped over the carcasses of sacrificed sheep, goats and cows, believing it will cure infertility. Parents smeared crosses with the blood on their children's foreheads for luck.
Pilgrims jubilantly mobbed passing black-clad clergymen, kissing their hands and surrendering their heads to them for a blessing. Bishop Bieman tried to keep order with a bamboo stick, gently smacking pilgrims who rushed to join a procession of clergy carrying the St. George icon.
Instead, he was mobbed by worshippers demanding he strike them with the stick as a blessing.
Others browsed stores selling Christian paraphernalia. Anything with the image of the late Pope Shenouda was selling big. Cushions bore images of him embraced by a blonde Jesus. Posters showed him in heaven handing Jesus pieces of paper and saying, "Lord, these are the problems of my children for you to deal with."
There were even remnants of the traditional mingling of Egypt's religious communities: Several Muslim women in conservative headscarves lined up with Christians to have demons exorcized by the priests. Egypt's Muslims and Christians, particularly in the countryside, have traditionally had no problem turning to each other's holy men for succor. But it's a practice sharply opposed by ultraconservative Muslims.
Amid the festivities, the growing problems of Christians felt far away.
"I don't get upset so much now when I hear about Christians getting killed," said Kirolos Anas, a 25-year-old decorator. "It has become routine, and it is for God to hold the killers accountable."
But Bishop Bieman said the youth in his diocese of Negada and Qos in Qena province were showing signs of dissent, growing more assertive in their demands for Christian equality. They say the church has been too pacifist, he said. "We urge them to join political parties, trade unions and student bodies, to fully interact with society" to seek their demands, the bishop said.
"The danger facing our people is that their ceiling of expectations has been significantly raised since the revolution toppled Mubarak's regime and the freedoms that followed," he said. "But, instead, we are suffering now more than we did under Mubarak."
Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, has done little more than pay lip service to Christian rights, many Christians say.
Bishop Marcus, of Shubra, met Morsi for two hours on Aug. 22 with other clergymen.
"We had tea and were warmly greeted. We talked about everything that we need to see changed," said Marcus. "He never said no to any demand we raised." But, he added, "we are still waiting for action."
Then his voice grew angrier.
"Why can't the president be decisive and delve into the case file of the Christians? Are Christians a part of the fabric of this nation or not?"