Mina is in crisis.

A moody college student, Mina hates his family's humble means, his father's inability to buy him new clothes. How will he ever be able to save enough to get married?

His priest is no help, repeating empty platitudes about the benefits of spending more time in church.

But Ahmed, a new friend from school, has answers. He offers Mina money, work opportunities, even a wife. Ahmed offers a helping hand, with a hidden agenda: Mina has to convert to Islam.

On the surface, the stage play "I Was Blind but Now I See" comes off as an amateurish student production with stilted dialogue from young actors wearing bad fake beards. But two years after its performance, it became the focal point of Egypt's worst sectarian flare-up in years.

In the process, it exposed a growing chasm between the country's Muslim majority and Coptic minority -- Orthodox Christians who make up about 6 to 10 percent of Egypt's population.

"Things are getting worse," said Mohammed Sherdi, a parliamentary candidate with the opposition secularist Wafd Party. "The same old government line is: All is well, don't worry. But all is not well."

The play was performed once by a student group in 2003 at St. George's Church in Alexandria's Muharram Bey neighborhood, apparently without controversy. But DVD recordings of the performance began circulating this fall and a national newspaper printed a description.

The most sensitive aspects seem to be the overall idea of an active Muslim campaign to convert Christians. Mina is recruited by Ahmed into a cell of cartoonish Muslim extremists. In an emotional scene, Mina leaves home over the shrill pleas of his sister, who accuses him of "selling our savior for money."

Eventually, Mina becomes disillusioned with the teachings of the cell's bearded leader and attempts to return to Christianity. He is shot while trying to leave and crawls to his family's doorstep, where he is welcomed and forgiven.

But the content of the play seems secondary to the fast-spreading accusation that it is offensive to Islam.

Muharram Bey is a religiously mixed middle-class neighborhood, and St. George's is bracketed by two large mosques, which in October became centers for Muslim protesters demanding an apology for the play's presentation.

Thousands of Muslim demonstrators attempted to storm St. George's after Friday Islamic prayers. Club-wielding riot police beat back the mob; three protesters died from rubber-bullet injuries and tear-gas inhalation. The following Friday, a clampdown by at least 2,000 Central Security conscripts prevented a repeat of the violence.

The clash prompted public soul-searching, with many wondering whether the centuries-old harmony between Egyptian Muslims and Christians was fraying.

"We cannot continue to bandage the wounds, exchanging soothing words at inter-sectarian banquets," wrote columnist Salama Ahmed Salama in the nonsectarian state-owned weekly al-Ahram. "What we need to do is face up to the fact that religious fanaticism has been spreading in our midst for some time, infecting Muslims and Christians alike."

It remains unclear just who began distributing copies of the play. Its sudden reemergence has all sides whispering about the possibility of sinister forces at work.

"The Egyptian people aren't like this. But someone is exploiting this for personal benefits," said Ali Abdel Fattah, a spokesman for the officially banned but active Muslim Brotherhood.

"We benefit from calm," said Abdel Fattah, an Alexandria native who said he first saw a copy of the play seven months ago and felt it was "done by someone ignorant."

Even those who say the crisis was manufactured acknowledge that street-level mistrust has left fertile ground for such incidents. Some observers speak of rising Coptic paranoia fueled by the spread of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam, which has been exported from Persian Gulf states.

The play's true legacy could be a rare insight into something most Egyptians already knew existed: the inherent clannishness of a religious minority and a deepening siege mentality.

Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, one of a handful of Copts among the 444 elected members of parliament, is concerned by what he sees as growing self-imposed isolation among Egyptian Christians. The sentiment clearly runs through the play, in which the family priest advises Mina's worried parents that their son's friends "must be Christian, so they'll go to church together."

Abdel Nour recalls recently speaking at a church group and urging members to mix openly in society.

"I told them, 'Get out of church . . . get integrated,' " Abdel Nour said. "A young man raised his hand and said, 'You're telling us to go and mix, but if we do, our values will be reduced.' "

A wrecked car sits at the site where thousands of Muslims rioted in October outside a Coptic Christian church in the port of Alexandria, Egypt. A Coptic nun sat on the ground after being stabbed by a Muslim student in the October riots.