March 10, 2011
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.