The Virgin Mary appears: Truth or dare?

The apparition of the Virgin Mary in churches around  Egypt since 10 December has raised intense controversy on the Egyptian street. Responses have ranged from harsh criticism and denial to unquestioning belief.

Thousands have been coming nightly to the Virgin Mary Alwarrak and Almassara-Shubra churches since the first sighting. The faithful hope to be blessed by her light, the skeptical just want to see for themselves. Together, they have stood for 12 continuous hours staring at the sky, some praying and asking her to appear while others gossip. Some claim they have seen the Virgin Mary, while others say they saw illuminated pigeons. The rest say it is a hoax.

"It’s her, there is no doubt about it. It cannot be an illusion," said excited Christine George, an 18-year-old Thanaweya Amma student who says she has seen the Virgin at Virgin Mary Alwarrak Church.

A minority of Muslims believe they have seen her too. “I saw the Virgin Mary in full apparition with her white and blue dress, crown and belt,” said Mohamed Saad, 52, a retired tire shop owner, as he stood in front of Virgin Mary Massara Church.

Others, both Copts and Muslims, say they were present and saw nothing. “There is nothing appearing. People scream, sing, clap, and say ‘here she comes,’ but I look to find nothing,” said Micheal Hanna, 67, a shop owner in the area near the Alwarrak church.

The controversy is not limited to people who have been waiting in the street for the Virgin to appear. Every sector of Egyptian society seems to be discussing the apparitions. “Does anyone show up after being dead?” asked Atef Hafez, 53, a car driver. Hafez doesn’t believe anyone is able to appear to people after death. The sightings, he says, can be attributed to lasers.

But those who believe in the apparition assure that lasers couldn’t have overwhelmed the sky the way the Virgin Mary did. “I saw the sky lighting as if we were dawn, when it was around 9 PM. I felt as if the sky was illuminated by holy candles. A laser couldn’t ever give that effect,” said Nagwa Foad, a 43-year-old English preparatory teacher. Foad has seen the light from the balcony of her home in Omrania, Alharam, Giza.

Copts, and some Muslims, take the alleged appearances of the holy figure as a faith booster. “I’m a Muslim and I believe in such things, because if this isn’t true then my relation with holy Zienab is an illusion as well,” said Amal Farah, 41, a children’s book writer.

Coptic Christians point to a similar incident in April 1968, when it was alleged that the Virgin Mary stayed for a month above Cairo. The event was nationally and internationally publicized.

“It is not the first time that the Mother of Light comes to Egypt," said Ehab Shaker, 74, "I saw the lighting pigeons in the late 60s and I know friends who have seen her at that time.”

Meanwhile, some Egyptians think the whole thing is a conspiracy by the Christian Orthodox Church that will serve its political and religious goals. “The Coptic Church did that to test how far it affects the Egyptian street,” said Tarek Mohamed, 48, a journalist. He believes that the whole incident is a plot by the Coptic Church to prove its strength and faith to Egyptians.

Do people search for their beliefs inside their hearts and through their souls or they fetch it outside themselves and wait for external signs that are perceived as sent from heaven? Is it a mix of both? Humans have not agreed on an answer to this question, and so the question of whether Virgin Mary’s apparitions are illusions or real remain unanswered. 

Stay tuned for a series of articles looking into the history and anthropolgy of Egyptian attachement to religious figures.

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