Two incidents of perceived divine intervention in the past month have sent a surge of excitement through Egypt's Christian and Moslem communities, and have put Egypt's special religious police force on edge.
Since March 25, thousands of Egyptian Christians have flocked to a small church set amid the tenements of one of Cairo's poor neighborhoods to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Within a week of that appearance, another so-called miracle had taken place. In Port Said, a man bought a carton of eggs and found on one of his eggs, in four different scripts, the Arabic word for God -- Allah.
In a sermon today, a Moslem sheik in Port Said proclaimed the egg "a miracle," and according to a local news report, people left the mosque "weeping, humbled, and exalting the wonders of Allah."
Hundreds of Christians continue to visit the Damienna church in the Shobra neighborhood of Cairo. The Virgin Mary, they say, has appeared almost nightly for nearly a month.
"She has come for peace, and love between people," said Father Samuel Yunan Mansi, a priest at the church.
But police cordons erected in the littered, dirt alleyways leading to the church suggest the effect could be otherwise.
"It's a sort of religious competition," suggested one Moslem political analyst, who declined to be identified, "a part of underground sectarian strife."
While that assessment might seem cynical, it reflects a real concern. Some of the police who block access to the church between the hours of 6 p.m. and dawn are the same police who have prevented demonstrations by Moslem fundamentalists during the past year. They are from a department of the state security apparatus that deals exclusively with religious affairs.
President Hosni Mubarak, since taking power after the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat by Moslem extremists in 1981, has made determined efforts to reduce tensions between fundamentalist Moslems and Christians in Egypt.
When Moslems and Christians began to plaster their cars with religious decals last year, in what became known as "the bumper sticker war," the government ordered a halt.
The move received the support of many Moslem sheiks and Pope Shenouda III, spiritual leader of about 6 million Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Sadat's policies had angered both Moslem and Christian fundamentalists and, at the time of his assassination, sectarian tension was at a peak.
By contrast, Mubarak has employed leniency toward fundamentalist agitators imprisoned by Sadat, while dealing firmly with renewed strife.
The police cordons at the Damienna church appear partly to be a means to avert sectarian trouble.
Following the incident of the "miraculous" egg in Port Said, the ruling National Democratic Party's Islamic newspaper published a front-page article denouncing the phenomenon as "an attempt to mislead and deceive." As part of the paper's investigation, an artist was employed to paint several eggs with the words Allah, to show there was nothing miraculous about it.
To many of the faithful, the miracles are revelations from God.
At the Damienna church one night last week, about 350 people gathered in cramped quarters in the hope of witnessing the appearance of Virgin Mary. They had arrived before the 6 p.m. cordons went up, and most were still praying and chanting at 1 a.m., by which time the miracle had not occurred.
The Virgin is said to take on various forms and poses, but mostly she is described as appearing as "a white, phosphorous light."
Her supposed appearance has given a boost to the Damienna Church.
"There is no one turning on their television now. Everyone is praying -- here and in their houses," said Mansi, the priest.
Mansi, who claimed he saw the Virgin on the first night she appeared, said that other miracles had since occurred. "One blind man came, and his eyes were opened," he said.
The inside of the church, constructed in 1946, is in a middle state between disintegration and renovation. The walls are splattered with paint and cement, and loose wires protrude haphazardly.
The crowd, alternately praying, singing hymns in Arabic and chants in ancient Coptic, appeared varied in class and education.
One fashionably dressed woman said she had come twice to see the miracle with no success.
A middle-aged bank accountant said he saw the apparition twice. "The first time, it was just a light, but then I saw the Virgin. She looked sad," he said.