It was nighttime and 10,000 Islamists were marching down the most heavily Christian street in this ancient Egyptian city, chanting “Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians.” A half-dozen kids were spray-painting “Boycott the Christians” on walls, supervised by an adult.
While Islamists are on the defensive in Cairo following the ouster of President Mohammad Mursi, in Assiut and elsewhere in Egypt's Deep South they are waging a stepped-up hate campaign, claiming the country's Christian minority somehow engineered Mursi's downfall.
“Tawadros is a dog,” says a spray-painted insult, referring to Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Copts, as Egypt's Christians are called. Christian homes, stores and places of worship have been marked with large painted crosses.
The hostility led a coalition of 16 Egyptian rights groups to warn on Wednesday of a wave of violence to come, and to demand that thepost-Mursi authorities protect the Christians who are 10 percent of the population, and suffer chronic discrimination.
Nile-side Assiut, a city of one million people 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Cairo, dates back to the pharaohs. The New Testament says Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus passed through as they fled the infanticide King Herod. Today, its Christian fears are compounded by the failure of authorities to curb the graffiti-spraying and the Islamists' demonstrations, which have gone on almost nightly since the July 3 overthrow of Mursi.
“They (the Islamists) will not stop as long as they are left to do as they please without fear of accountability,” said Hossam Nabil, 38, who owns a jewelry store on Youssry Ragheb St. where the demonstration passed on Tuesday night. “They are many and one day they will trash our stores.”
Like other Christians with stores on the street, Nabil shuttered his establishment until the protesters had passed. “They (the marchers) run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us, or scream Mursi's name in our faces,” he said.
A young couple arrived to shop while scores of marchers were still on the street. They froze in fear, the husband shielding his wife with his body.
Families living in apartment blocks above the stores stayed home, shutting windows and staying off balconies. Those outdoors kept their distance from the march.
Assiut's Islamists are strong because local authority is weak and religion is powerful in a region where poverty is widespread and envy of the relatively high number of well-to-do Christians runs high.
As for the graffiti, acting provincial governor Gamal Adam told The Associated Press the authorities have given up on washing it away because it quickly reappears. He also said municipal cleaners might be roughed up if caught in the act by Islamists.
For the 40 percent of Assiut people who are Christian, life has changed radically. They find their apartment blocks disfigured by painted crosses with a red X painted over them. They stay at home at night. Churches have cancelled afternoon activities. Some of the wealthy have left town.
“We had never experienced the kind of persecution we suffer now. We are insulted every day,” said Nevine Kamal, a 40-year-old Christian pharmacist and mother of two teenagers. “We are angry and frustrated but we are not leaving Assiut,” she said, seated at her desk at the St. George Pharmacy on Youssry Ragheb Street. Under her desk's glass is a poster of the Virgin Mary and on the wall is an image of St. George slaying the mythical dragon.
“Sadly, my children are angry with Egypt and want to leave and they don't believe us when I and my husband tell them that things will get better soon. But, personally, I have faith that all this will yield something good for us and the country. We thought the Muslim Brotherhood will rule for 80 years and they are out after just one year. Who would have believed this?” Mursi is a longtime leader of the Brotherhood.
At least seven Christians have been killed since the ouster of Mursi, one of them in Assiut. Scores have been injured.
This week, in a village in the province of Minya south of Cairo, a pro-military song playing on a coffee shop radio sparked an argument between a Muslim and a Christian, and the next day a mob of thousands ransacked Christian homes and stores and tried to storm a church. At least 18 people were injured and arrests warrants issued for 35.
Egypt's Christians used to shun politics, but since the Arab Spring of early 2011 they have started to demand a say in the country's direction. They took it to a new level during Mursi's year in office and the empowerment of his Islamist allies. Tawadros, the Coptic Christian pope installed last year, openly criticized the president and told Christians they were free to actively participate in politics.
It was a risky gamble for a minority that has long felt vulnerable, with its most concentrated communities, like the one in Assiut, living in the same rural areas where the most vehement Islamists hold sway.
During Mursi's year in office, some of his hard-line allies increasingly spoke of Christians as enemies of Islam and warned them to remember they are a minority. When the wave of protests against Mursi began on June 30, Media supportive of his Muslim Brotherhood depicted the movement as dominated by Christians.
Still, at the ancient convent marking the last spot where the Holy Family is thought to have stayed before it left Egypt, hundreds gathered this week for an annual festival in upbeat mood. Children played, families picnicked, people lined up to buy blessed bread.
“Those who hate us are misled,” said a convent member named Martyra, speaking to the AP while standing in a cave where ancient Egyptians quarried stones to build their cities. “I am safe here in the convent but I worry and pray for those who live outside and have children.”