MAR GIRGIS MONASTERY, Egypt — There was no mention of churches torched or Christians killed, but the prayer neatly written on a tiny piece of paper and placed atop an icon of St. George in the chapel of a desert monastery left no doubt about the growing fear and despair of Coptic Christians in Egypt.
‘‘Oh Lord, for the sake of all the saints of the church, raise high the banner of the cross and vanquish our enemies, the enemies of the church,’’ it read. ‘‘Make our enemies realize their weakness, foil their actions against us, bring joy to our hearts, increase our profit, and make us victorious.’’
There were folded slips of paper all over the icon of the Christian knight rearing on his steed and skewering a dragon with his spear. Copts stood motionless in prayer before the image. Others broke into hymns. Eager to linger in the saint’s presence, families picnicked on the chapel floor.
This month, hundreds of thousands of Copts from across the country flocked to the monastery of Mar Girgis, as St. George is known in Arabic, in one of the biggest and most exuberant events of the year for Egypt’s Christians. The annual pilgrimage is a festival of faith, a time to pay homage to the third-century saint who is one of the most revered figures of Christianity’s oldest Church.
It is also an opportunity for Christians to exult in their identity away from the daily discrimination — large and small, subtle and blatant — they say they increasingly face in this nation where the Muslim majority has been growing more conservative for decades.
At this year’s pilgrimage, the Christians’ sense of siege is stronger than ever, after Muslim hardliners gained political dominance, vowing to rule Egypt by Islamic law. Some speak of an imminent second ‘‘age of martyrdom,’’ recalling the era of persecution of Christians under Roman rule.
‘‘Without a divine intervention that is both visible and strong, I think we are moving toward a confrontation that will have grave ramifications for Egypt,’’ said Bishop Bieman, a charismatic church leader.
Egypt’s Christian minority, about 10 percent of the population of more than 80 million, has long complained of discrimination. But 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. Ultraconservative Muslim clerics preach that Muslims cannot be friends with Christians. In recent weeks, there have been several cases of Muslim women forcibly cutting the hair of Christian girls, who unlike almost all Egyptian Muslim women don’t wear headscarves.
Among the crowds at Mar Girgis, about 400 miles south of Cairo, Copts find a place where they don’t have to worry about disapproving looks from ultraconservative Muslims. They don’t 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.
Men and women flaunted the cross tattoos on the inside of their wrists, which these days they often keep discreet. Others showed off more elaborate tattoos of their favorite saints on their arms.