was nighttime and 10,000 Islamists were marching down the most heavily Christian street in this ancient Egyptian city, chanting "Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians." A half-dozen kids were spray-painting "Boycott the Christians" on walls, supervised by an adult.
While Islamists are on the defensive in Cairo following the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, in Assiut and elsewhere in Egypt's deep south they are waging a stepped-up hate campaign, claiming the country's Christian minority somehow engineered Morsi's downfall.
"Tawadros is a dog," says a spray-painted insult, referring to Pope?Tawadros II, patriarch of the Copts, as Egypt's Christians are called. Christian homes, stores and places of worship have been marked with large painted crosses.
The hostility led a coalition of 16 Egyptian rights groups to warn Wednesday of a wave of violence to come, and to demand that the post-coup authorities protect the Christians who are 10 percent of the population, and suffer chronic discrimination.
Nile-side Assiut, a city of one million people south of Cairo, dates to the pharaohs. The New Testament says Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus passed through as they fled the infanticidal King Herod. Today, its Christian fears are compounded by the failure of authorities to curb the graffiti-spraying and the Islamists' demonstrations, which have gone on almost nightly since the July 3 coup that ousted Morsi.
"They (the Islamists) will not stop as long as they are left to do as they please without fear of accountability," said Hossam Nabil, 38, who owns a jewelry store on Youssry Ragheb Street, where the demonstration passed Tuesday night. "They are many and one day they will trash our stores."
Assiut's Islamists are strong because local authority is weak and religion is powerful in a region where poverty is widespread and envy of the relatively high number of well-to-do Christians runs high.
For the 40 percent of Assiut people who are Christian, life has changed radically. They find their apartment blocks disfigured by painted crosses with a red X painted over them. They stay at home at night. Churches have cancelled afternoon activities. Some of the wealthy have left town.
"We had never experienced the kind of persecution we suffer now. We are insulted every day," said Nevine Kamal, a 40-year-old Christian pharmacist and mother of two teenagers. "We are angry and frustrated but we are not leaving Assiut," she said, seated at her desk at the St. George Pharmacy on Youssry Ragheb Street. Under her desk's glass is a poster of the Virgin Mary and on the wall is an image of St. George slaying the mythical dragon.
At least seven Christians have been killed since the coup, one of them in Assiut. Scores have been injured.
Egypt's Christians used to shun politics, but since the Arab Spring of early 2011 they have started to demand a say in the country's direction. They took it to a new level during Morsi's year in office and the empowerment of his Islamist allies. Tawadros, the Coptic Christian pope installed last year, openly criticized the president and told Christians they were free to actively participate in politics.
It was a risky gamble for a minority that has long felt vulnerable, with its most concentrated communities, such as the one in Assiut, living in the same rural areas where the most vehement Islamists hold sway. During Morsi's year in office, some of his hard-line allies increasingly spoke of Christians as enemies of Islam and warned them to remember they are a minority. When the wave of protests against Morsi began June 30, media supportive of his Muslim Brotherhood depicted the movement as dominated by Christians.