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Egypt’s Christian minority, about 10 percent of the population of more than 80 million, has long complained of discrimination.

Now 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.

Ultrafundamentalist Islamic clerics preach that Muslims cannot be friends with Christians. They disapprove of overt shows of Christianity, an attitude that seeps into 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 other Egyptian Muslim women, do not 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 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 Mr. Fakhouri. “I was very upset.”

Solace for Copts

Bishop Marcus told how his diocese in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra narrowly averted a violent clash between Christians and Muslims when Islamic hard-liners recently took over a Christian-owned plot of land and declared it a mosque.

The hard-liners 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 south of Cairo, Copts find a place where they don’t have to worry about disapproving looks from fundamentalist Muslims.

They do not 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.

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