ODAYSSAT, Egypt -- Christians called the flat-top mud and brick building in this little farming community a guest house. But inside, big crucifixes adorned an altar chamber separated from two dozen rows of pews by a wooden screen. A baptismal font was hidden in a side room. Pictures of a resurrected Jesus, saints and patriarchs gazed from the walls.
For 35 years, the congregation and priests labeled the place a guest house to avoid restrictions on church construction in Egypt. But on Jan. 17, a police official, tipped off that the Christians were trying to have the building officially recognized, stopped by to inspect.
"This is not a guest house," he said with surprise. "It's a church."
According to residents and officials who described the incident, the monks, priests and worshipers answered, in effect: That's right. What of it?
The next day, a mob of Muslim rioters invaded the neighborhood, set fires to palm trees and stables and tried to burn down the building. Only a frantic defense by the Christians and heavy smoke from the flaming trees kept the mob at bay. Police officers who had already surrounded the building stood idly by. One Christian man was killed by a blow to the head with a hoe.
The sectarian battle was one of a series that have recently pitted the minority Coptic Christians, an ancient community in Egypt, against the majority Muslims. Repeated instances of violence have brought to light a persistent paradox of Egyptian life: Although officially a secular state, Egypt is in many ways an Islamic entity in which non-Muslims are accommodated but not exactly on an equal footing. The constitution specifies Islam as Egypt's official religion; Copts make up less than 10 percent of the country's population.
If the tensions are not new, the willingness of the Copts of Odayssat to stand up is. In part, their reaction to the police inspection exemplifies an increasingly common byproduct of Egypt's two-year-long wave of openness and dissent. Such ferment is putting the quarter-century leadership of President Hosni Mubarak to a test at a time when he is also under pressure from the United States to democratize.
About 30,000 people live in Odayssat, 8,000 of whom are Christians. The town contains the typical features of hundreds of Nile Valley farm communities: ramshackle, bare brick-and-wattle houses clustered around dirt alleys; and donkeys and cows in close quarters with farmers who cultivate fields of sugar cane and grain.
A recent Mass at Odayssat's Virgin Mary Church resembled an updated version of Christian worship as carried out under the thumb of a Roman emperor's centurions. Riot police in black kept sullen guard outside the church, whose facade was newly decorated with portraits of Mary. Inside, women in black sat and stood to the right side of the central aisle, men to the left. Squirming boys clustered at the feet of priests celebrating the rite in Coptic, a language descended from an ancient Egyptian tongue and Greek. Incense tickled the nose.
"What happened now is little in comparison to the past, when the fathers of our church were tortured," said a priest who delivered the homily.
After Mass, a group of Coptic men gathered in a nearby house. They recounted their version of the January melee. Word had circulated about an official announcement pledging to shed the cover of guest house and declare Virgin Mary an open church. On Jan. 17, a police official, Mohammed Nour, visited and made his discovery, residents and government officials said. He told the Christians they would be "held accountable" for the conversion of the building.
On Jan. 18, the Copts held Mass between 4 and 7 a.m. Riot police ringed the half-acre grounds. As worshipers left the church, police told them to lock themselves in their houses. At 8:30, power to the neighborhood was cut.
"Suddenly, a crowd appeared, and they're shouting, 'God is great!' " recalled Mansef Ayad, an elementary school teacher. God is great, a common Islamic exclamation, is also a characteristic cry of Islamic holy warriors, or jihadis .
"The jihadis came from the fields and began to burn palm trees. They threw gas bombs on houses. We knew if they reached the church, it was done for. The roof is wood," Mansef said.
Christian men emerged to block alleys and the most vulnerable side of the church, which abuts a field. They threw stones at the attackers. But it was the smoke that eventually, after two hours, halted the assault. "I think of it as divine intervention," said the Rev. Basilios, a priest from nearby Dabaya.
Sabah Shahad, a relative of the slain Christian man, Kamal Shaker Meglaa, said Shaker was not part of the battle but was simply returning to his house near the church. Shahad said two men attacked Meglaa and hit him repeatedly with a hoe, cracking his skull. They also broke the legs of livestock and set the animals aflame. "They did this because we are Christian," said Shahad, who is a cement porter at a construction site.
The unrest drew the attention of human rights groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially outlawed in Egypt but is on a campaign to persuade Egyptians of all stripes that the group's growing political power is not a threat.
"People should be able to worship freely, without having to wait endlessly for licenses to be issued," said Essam Erian, a top member of the Brotherhood, told reporters in Cairo. He faulted the government, the Christians for opening a church without a license and the Muslims for resorting to violence.
The Odayssat conflict capped a period of Muslim-Christian flare-ups, some of which resulted from perceived insults felt by both sides.
In December 2004, Christians in Cairo protested an allegedly forced conversion of the wife of a Coptic priest to Islam. The woman turned out to have converted willingly, but the government ordered her returned to the Coptic community. More than 50 people were injured in battles with police.
That same month, dozens of Muslims attacked a church in the hamlet of Damshwai Hashim, about 150 miles south of Cairo. Word had spread that a private home was used for public prayer, in effect making it a church. Police trying to break up Muslim-Christian clashes shot dead Mohammed Mohsen Qassem, a student.
In October, Muslims in the ancient port city of Alexandria marched on St. George's Church to protest distribution of a DVD of a play performed by Copts two years ago. The play, "I Was Blind, But Now I Can See," depicted a Christian convert to Islam who is threatened with death by Muslim militants. In the protest, three Muslims in Alexandria died at the hands of police, and rioters burned down three liquor stores -- alcohol is forbidden to Muslims but not to Christians. Islamic and Coptic leaders tried to soothe emotions. Bishop Armia told Egypt's official news agency, MENA, that "Copts would never tolerate anyone insulting Islam."
"There's rising sensitivity over religious issues these days," said Mohamed Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a state-run research center. "It's starting to scar the national psyche. People are starting to worry about it."
"There is a growing tendency toward religious intolerance in Egypt," said Hafez Abu Saeda, who heads the independent Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
The government has made some liberalizing gestures. Two years ago, it declared the Coptic Christmas an official holiday. Last year, the Copts were permitted to operate a satellite television station. Finally, last fall, Mubarak slightly loosened regulations governing church construction, allowing renovations to be carried out with permission of local governors instead of by presidential decree . But Mubarak gave no indication of what to do about de facto churches that suddenly demand recognition like the one in Odayssat.
Odayssat's Copts accuse Ali Odaysi, a landowner and member of Egypt's upper house of parliament, of organizing the riot. He said he did nothing of the sort, but said the Christians were wrong to worship clandestinely.
Odaysi met a reporter in a gas station he owns. An entourage of men in sunglasses sat around the room and provided nodding assent to whatever he said.
"This was just a little conflict between two groups of people. We've lived in harmony for hundreds of years. Look. Two Copts work at this gas station here," he said.
"If there's a dispute at all, it's whether there's a church or a guest house. If it's a church, why perform Mass in secret? There must be something else wrong. Any place in the world must have a permit to build a church or any other building. We must all abide by the law," he continued.
"Anyway, a Christian is Christian. We Muslims worship in any mosque, why can't they worship in some other church? There's another church, an Anglican one not far away. Why can't they worship there?"
Police in Luxor declined to comment on the riot. The governor of the surrounding province, Samir Farag, confirmed details of the Odayssat feud but played it down. He oscillated between calling it "just a dispute over land" and "the work of fanatics." He said 23 Muslim rioters were under arrest and that the case against them is being handled by a state prosecutor in Cairo -- an indication, he said, of concern.
"We all get along here," Farag said.
By Daniel Williams