Since 11 December, Coptic Christians in Egypt have been reporting, and circulating news about, sightings of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, mostly in a church in el-Waraq.
Most of those who reported the incident said the apparition appeared in the form of an overwhelming light with a blue lining, the same color of the saint's robes as it appears in popular Christian iconography, or in the form of a glowing pigeon, appearing and disappearing. Others, like blogger Morris Sadek, described a more sensational picture on his website. "The Holy Virgin appeared in her full height in luminous robes, above the middle dome of the church, in a pure white dress and a royal blue belt," he wrote. "She had a crown on her head, above which appeared the cross on top of the dome. The crosses on top of the church’s domes and towers glowed brightly with light."
The blogger, like others, added that she hovered between the twin towers of the church, and insisted that all the local residents saw her. Videos showing bright lights over the dome of the church have been circulating among Egyptian Muslims and Christians, with many of the latter forming Facebook groups calling upon the media to recognize the apparition as real. Since the first sighting in December, apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported over 10 times; sometimes eyewitnesses in different places claimed seeing her at the same time.
Church officials did not deny the incident, while Pope Shenouda seems to think that the apparitions are a blessing, noting that they were reported by Muslims as well, who also revere Mary as a respected religious figure. He told the press that only those with true faith would be able to see her.
The incident is not new in Egypt; the first public sighting of the Virgin Mary dates as far back as April 1968. Rumor has it that she was seen in her real human form - not as a bird or a shining light - on the dome of a church in the neighborhood of el-Zeitoun. Two Muslim construction workers (and in another version, night guards) saw her and shouted at her to climb down, thinking her an ordinary woman who had gotten up there in order to jump. The news of the sighting spread like wildfire among Egyptians, and both Muslims and Christians embarked on a pilgrimage to the church to witness what was perceived as a miracle. According to Rafiq Habib, a Christian analyst and thinker, "It was such a big event that even President Gamal Abdel-Nasser went there to see it."
Sandwiched between Christian holidays and incidents of violence against devout Christians and monks, the December apparitions stand apart because of their frequency and the intense debate surrounding them. According to Habib, reported sightings in general can be seen as a litmus test of how relations between Muslims and Christians are faring, and how Christians feel about the state of these relations. Then again, many have tied the sightings of the Virgin Mary in the year 2000 - when people claimed seeing her as a bird at times and as a light at others, above the Church of St. Mark in Assiut - to the rise of Islamic conservatism and the increase of signs of religiosity, and in turn also fundamentalism, among many Muslims. As many Christians have expressed on Facebook groups, the sightings usually symbolize hope and blessings, and perhaps heavenly reassurance.
Even in 1968, the year which saw Egypt defeated in a war with Israel and the Sinai Peninsula seized, "there was a return to piety, to religion and a revival of religious identity," says Habib, "The state had adopted religious slogans."
Apparitions were also witnessed a lot in the 1990s, a time when Islamic militancy reached a new height in Egypt. The decade witnessed some of the most violent attacks against Christians in Egypt ever reported, including the incidents in the village of el-Kosheh between 1997 and 2000, which resulted in the death of dozens of Muslims and Christians who lost their lives in armed clashes. A wide wave of arrests, one that even included priests, followed.
Historian and writer Emad Ghazi, who says he has only reacted to the apparitions on a personal level and has not studied them from a historical perspective, says that "in 1968, there was a wave of piety that engulfed the Egyptians in manners and dress ... with the rise of Sufism among Muslims and sightings of miracles among Christians." He says that spirituality at the time was "a trend."
But this year the sightings are a lot, notes Habib, who wonders whether this could be a public manifestation of religious zealousness. "It does reflect a strong desire from the side of the Copts to see the Virgin Mary," says Habib, "Because in all cases, those who believe in miracles and desire them witness them. And there's a very strong spiritual need among the Christians to witness miracles these days. And in my opinion this is a very dangerous sign."
According to Habib, the sightings, and the belief in them, reflect the amount of "tension, worry and anger present in the community. The [tensions] are so great that only 'miraculous' or 'metaphysical' incidents can relieve them."
Intense clashes between Muslims and Christians have often erupted over the use of homes as churches, apostasy, reports (and often rumors) of mixed marriages, or even Christian-Muslim romances. Many of the incidents have resulted in deaths or resulted in religious extremism. Over the years, looting, torching or destroying Christian property and sometimes attacking churches or makeshift places of worship, has increased. In April 2006, four Coptic churches were attacked in the coastal city of Alexandria by a reportedly "deranged" knife-wielding Muslim. In this incident, a 78-year-old Coptic man was stabbed to death and violent riots ensued, resulting in many injuries.
One of the main issues that offend Egyptian Christians is the restrictive law regarding establishing places of worship, which is reminiscent of the Hamayoun law that limited the building and restoration of churches during Ottoman rule in 1517. To this day, Christians have to provide proof of property rights of centuries-old churches, as well as get special permits with signatures from ministers and/or governors, in order to renovate or restore a prayer space. The law forbids a church being too close to a mosque or near important monuments or government facilities. Christians have also reported being denied jobs and high positions in government because of their faith.
"[The sightings] mean that there's deep pain among Christians here in Egypt and this pain has been materialized [figuratively in the apparitions]," explains Habib, who notes that the discrimination currently felt by many Christians is perhaps the worst we've seen in Egypt in the past century. "The need for a miracle and reassurances reflects a fear of the future, and a fear for their lives," says Habib.