The angry, aggressive crowd formed within minutes of my arrival. Dozens of Muslim men, all in ankle-length galabias, came together in the middle of the dusty dirt path leading to the Church of the Two Martyrs in this poor Christian and Muslim village some 130 miles (210 km) south of Cairo. They were determined to block access to what has become a sectarian sore: a church overrun by Muslim locals and desecrated, an act that has prompted desperate national calls to maintain the inter-religious unity forged in Tahrir Square during the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.
"You can't see it!" a group of men screamed. Several women in niqabs, or full-face veils, scurried away, carrying plastic bags of produce. In an armored personnel carrier, several soldiers in red berets watched the fracas from farther up the road. Closer by, at least a dozen soldiers in flak jackets and helmets marched down an adjacent side street, barring anyone from following them.
"You are not allowed to pass," some of the men in galabias yelled at me. "Leave! Leave now!"
"Are you Christian?" another asked.
"What are you going to see?" asked Mahmoud Mohammad, 30, who appeared to be their spokesman. "Destroyed walls and a burned building?" I told him I wanted to reach the church.
"It's not a church," he said, raising his voice. "It is a meeting place, and we don't want a church here," he added before grabbing my notebook, ripping out several pages and forcibly marching me out of the village.
The dispute stems from a romantic relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman in the town. The woman's relatives wanted to "cleanse their honor" of the smear of her being with a Christian man, according to local media reports as well as several of the Muslim men who gathered around me. But when the subject of an honor killing came up, the woman's father refused. He was shot dead by an unidentified assailant and buried on March 4. To date, no one has been arrested for the murder.
"After Friday prayers, some of the youth were angry and still mourning, so they came to the church looking for that filthy Christian," Mohammad said, referring to the young man involved in the love affair. They didn't find him, but they ransacked the church. "We found wine and books against Islam," Mohammad claimed as other men interrupted to speak of other alleged wrongdoings by their Christian neighbors. "They rape our women!" one yelled. "They overcharge us at their stores!" said another.
It is unclear how many people were killed in Sole as a result of the dispute, but after Christians demonstrated in Cairo on Tuesday night against the desecration of the village church, a fight ensued with groups of Muslims, leading to violence that left 13 dead and 140 wounded.
Tensions between Egypt's majority Muslim population and Christians, who make up about 10% of the country's 80 million people, have simmered for decades. They rose sharply, however, after a church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year's Day. Twenty-one worshippers were killed in the attack. After the state security headquarters in Cairo were ransacked over the weekend, documents allegedly emerged purporting that the attack was orchestrated by elements of the government. The authenticity of the documents has not been ascertained, but the contents play into long-held fears of some of Egypt's Christians.
Many of Sole's Christian residents have fled, fearing further violence. Maher Sadiq, 26, isn't one of them. He says many of the town's Christian menfolk are staying to defend their homes. Sadiq, who says his house is on the same street as the church, said the remaining Christians were "living in fear." "They've turned the church into a mosque," he said by telephone. "There's a banner in front of it that says 'Al-Ramla Mosque.' They're not letting anyone pass or go near the church. We will not leave. We're prepared to die here."
Aziz Narooz, 27, and Hani Diab, 26, traveled from Sole earlier on Wednesday to join the hundreds of Coptic Christians maintaining a sit-in outside the state television headquarters. Many were sleeping on blankets spread out on the pavement. Most were carrying large wooden crosses. "People are very scared. Some haven't left their homes in days," Narooz said of the remaining Christians in Sole. "They burned our church, they kicked around the statues of our saints. Our saints!" he repeated. "They tore up the Bible, and they're still there."
In a bid to defuse rising tensions, the ruling Supreme Military Council pledged on Tuesday to rebuild the church before Easter and punish the perpetrators of the sectarian attacks. A day earlier, the country's new Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, joined the protesters, but they refused to speak with him until their demands were met. The Copts want the church rebuilt in its original location, not elsewhere, as some officials suggested, and the resignation of the local governor.
But it's obviously about a lot more than a village dispute. Michael Armanios, 20, who was hoarse from chanting outside the state TV building, fears for his future as an Egyptian Christian. "The second article of the constitution says that Shari'a is the law of the land, that this is a Muslim country. What about us?" he asked in a voice barely above a whisper. "Our soldiers don't want to hear us," he said, gesturing to the dozens of armed men manning the coiled razor wire near the building. "We want I need to have an opinion. I need to feel like I am a complete human being."
"Jesus taught us to be tolerant," said Samih Sameh, 23, who had painted a crescent and a cross on his cheeks in the red, white and black of the Egyptian flag. "But this is too much. We are here holding crosses, not weapons. Who will defend us?"