Flight into Egypt takes new turn


Tourism: The government is promoting sites associated with the journey of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus despite recent conflicts between Muslims and Christians.

April 07, 2000|By Elizabeth Bryant | Elizabeth Bryant,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ASYUT GOVERNORATE, Egypt -- Miracles and tragedies ripple across these quiet Nile Valley lands like clouds on a summer's day.

Pilgrims tell of stunning cures and visions at the sprawling Al Muharraq Monastery, where the Holy Family -- Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus -- is said to have stayed almost 2,000 years ago. But no miracles occurred for two monks, murdered in 1992 by Islamist extremists. The memory is an ugly gash in a landscape of sun-washed vineyards and drying hay.

More practical matters preoccupy Al Muharraq's monks today. They have petitioned for years to repair a crumbling wall that, legend has it, once sheltered Jesus. Government permission finally has been granted, coinciding with Egypt's ambitious plans to promote its Christian heritage.

"I think it's connected with the revival of the Holy Family in Egypt," says the Rev. Felix Semis, dark-robed and wearing the black embroidered cap of Egypt's Coptic Christian monks. "It is a reflection that the government is taking this seriously."

The country's extravagant millennium celebrations, capped by February's visit by Pope John Paul II, released construction permits to dozens of run-down parishes. But dozens more are waiting for government permission to paint and replaster, to build latrines and new buildings in towns that may, or may not, have witnessed the passage of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

But permission does not bring funds. Egypt's Christian and business communities will foot the bill -- $30 million to $70 million -- for much of the restoration of old Christian sites. Only a tiny fraction has been raised.

The government has a trickier task -- selling a skeptical foreign audience on Egypt as a refuge, blessed by the Holy Family, from persecution.

For Egypt's 6 million Christians, the country has been an uncertain refuge. A series of Christian-Muslim clashes in recent years culminated in January, when a spat between a Coptic Christian shopkeeper and a Muslim housewife escalated into a bloody fray that killed about 20 people in the southern town of Al Kosheh.

This and other incidents have prompted Christian rights groups in the United States and elsewhere to denounce the government of President Hosni Mubarak for religious persecution. Analysts here say that many of the incidents have less to do with religion than with the clannishness and immemorial grudges that are the trademarks of Egypt's rural south. But they say that more mundane discrimination, such as underrepresentation of Christians in key government and university posts, remains unaddressed.

"Relations between Christians and Muslims are worse than they were 10 years ago," says sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. "Cases like Al Kosheh are isolated, but they are repeated episodes. And every time they are given the same superficial treatment by the government, instead of treating the deeper, underlying causes."

The Egyptian government counters that strife between Christians and Muslims simply does not exist.

"We have been living together as one people for 14 centuries," says Tourism Minister Mamdouh el Beltagui. "The Christians of Egypt are a totally integrated part of all Egyptian people."

Religious tensions surface periodically not only between Egypt's Christians and Muslims, but also between Christian sects. Coptic Christians, who make up nearly 10 percent of the population, vastly outnumber the country's tiny communities of Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. Each church periodically accuses the others of stealing its adherents.

Egyptian Christianity began with the Alexandria church founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, less than a century after the Holy Family's flight to Egypt. It dominated the country until Islam arrived with the Arabs in the seventh century. The word Copt stems from the Arabic word for Egyptian.

The Holy Family's itinerary remains a matter of scholarly dispute. The Gospel of Matthew says only that King Herod planned to kill the baby, but Joseph, warned in a dream, fled by night with his family to Egypt and remained there until Herod's death. Traditionally, the sojourn has been put at 3 1/2 years.

Foreign tourists flock by thousands to the spare desert monasteries of Wadi El Natroun, west of modern Cairo, home to some of Egypt's first monks, and to St. Catherine, near Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Few of them, however, visit the narrow roads and mud-brick houses of tiny Qoussia in southern Egypt. Here, legend says, angry residents expelled the Holy Family after Jesus caused their idols to tremble and fall.

A more recent story is set across the river, where gaunt cliffs cut a rugged border between valley and desert. According to local lore, the Virgin Mary appeared before a local shepherd and told him to lead his flock elsewhere. When he returned alone, he found a small cave church, complete with an altar and religious books.

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