Renovation of Christian sites in Egypt raises hopes of greater religious tolerance
CAIRO - The restoration of Christian sites in Egypt, in preparation for receiving Christian pilgrims, is raising hope of a renewed spirit of religious tolerance between the country’s Muslim majority and Christian minority.
“Several Christian sites have been renovated and others are on the list for renovation,” said Ishaq Ibrahim, the Christian affairs specialist at local NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “If this says anything, it says that this country is changing.”
The renovation of the Christian sites came after approval by Roman Catholic Pope Francis last October of Egypt as part of the journey of the Holy Family. Catholic pilgrims have already started arriving to take part in the pilgrimage.
The itinerary of the pilgrims includes sites reportedly visited by Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus after they escaped King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. The sites had been neglected for hundreds of years but recent renovations amount to a national reawakening to the importance of Egypt’s Christian heritage.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up almost 10% of the population, had been effectively barred from restoring decaying churches for years. Rumours about Christians rebuilding a decaying wall or fixing a broken door in a church in Egypt inevitably led to Muslim neighbours complaining to local authorities. Some of the objections morphed into violence between Muslims and Christians.
“By renovating the churches and sanctuaries visited by the Holy Family the authorities are leading the way to the change and also functioning as a role model for all members of society,” Ibrahim said.
Egypt is pinning its hopes that the Holy Family pilgrimage will bring in Christian pilgrims from across the world and benefit its tourism sector. Egypt also worked to register the route of the Holy Family in UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage, which, experts said, gives preparations for the visits of the Christian pilgrims another dimension.
Egyptian authorities have taken a series of security measures to ensure that Christian pilgrims would be safe. Security conditions are generally improving in Egypt with many Egyptians expressing a high degree of contentment about security, a recent poll by the US-based research centre Gallup indicated.
Nonetheless, the Interior Ministry deployed additional police and security forces at sites being visited by Christian pilgrims.
The Tourism Promotion Authority referred to what it described as “special” security measures to secure the visits.
“Security agencies are taking all measures to make the visits the Christian pilgrims will pay to sites visited by the Holy Family totally secure,” said retired police general Mamdouh al-Kidwani. “Egypt is generally safe and the pilgrims will see this for themselves when they come here.”