WADI NATRUN, Egypt—Egyptian security forces wielding assault rifles peer warily into the cars at each of the three checkpoints visitors must go through before reaching the ancient monasteries here about 60 miles west of Cairo. At the biggest checkpoint, on an exposed crossroads, young officers in bullet-proof vests are burning an upturned tree trunk to try to keep warm and to make some tea while waiting, and watching for threats.
During each stop, cars are searched meticulously, identity papers are collected, and visitors gently interrogated. The authorities don’t want to take any chances near a holy site that will soon be the focal point of a major Christian pilgrimage at high risk of attacks by the Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State. It could be the target of other groups as well, like the mob that just stormed a church in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo, on Friday.
Coptic Christians believe the Holy family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph—rested here in Wadi Natrun more than 2,000 years ago as they fled the persecution of King Herod shortly after Jesus was born. Now Christians are facing violent persecution by terrorists from the affiliates in Egypt of the so-called Islamic State, and sometimes violent friction with other groups as well.
Although it appears nobody was killed in the Giza incident, an established church that never won official government authorization for services was attacked, ransacked, and some of the parishioners beaten.
This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes. It is one of the highest death tolls recorded in a single year, according to rights workers.
The Egyptian interior ministry said last week it had cancelled the annual leave for its security forces and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect over 2,000 religious buildings nationwide during the holiday period, which culminates in Egypt on January 7, the Coptic and Orthodox Christmas.
Here in Wadi Natrun the Syrian Monastery, as it is called, is especially important because of its direct association with the story of Christ. The details of the trip to Egypt made by Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not included in the Bible, which has only one reference to “the flight into Egypt” in Matthew 2:13-2:15. But according to Coptic beliefs the family fled Bethlehem through North Sinai, down to what is modern day Cairo, before crossing to the Delta, hiding in Wadi Natrun, and eventually fleeing south to Upper Egypt
And it is precisely that journey that the government in Cairo and, indeed, the Vatican now want to promote, despite threats by ISIS to launch further attacks on Egypt’s largest minority.
Copts may represent as much as 10 to 15 percent of the population and they trace their roots back to pre-Islamic times. They are not Roman Catholics, but in a historic move last October, Pope Francis blessed and ratified the “Holy Family Trail,” which means it becomes an official pilgrimage not just for the several million Christians in Egypt but the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Francis first mentioned the plan when he visited Cairo in April, and he has declared Egypt “a land where Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, as well as many prophets lived: a land that has been blessed with the precious blood of martyrs spilt throughout the centuries.”
A delegation from the Egyptian tourism ministry travelled to the Vatican two months ago to finalize the process. And last week a Vatican delegation, including officials who manage the Catholic Church’s pilgrimages, toured the country assessing the suitability of the historical sites where baby Jesus and his family allegedly rested.
The Egyptians hope the trail will be up and running by May and draw in a slew of foreign visitors who have stayed away in the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the 2013 military take over led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who is now president.
Father Angelos, who is part of the team organizing the pilgrimage route, told The Daily Beast it sends an important message at a difficult time for Christians. He is the priest at the 4th century AD Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church in old Cairo, which is is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. The Copts believe it was built above the cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph hid for several months, and so is regarded as the most important stop on the holy family trail.
“We are spreading the word that Christ has not visited anywhere else but Egypt which makes Egypt like the Holy Land itself,” said Father Angelos. “It is a message of defiance from the whole of Egypt that it is combating terrorism. It also tells Christians here that they are not marginalized.”
The priest said there were a total of 25 sites along the pilgrimage route, eight of which were ready to be properly opened to visitors next year.
The project is split into two initial stages. The first will see the authorities complete work within the coming year on Wadi Natrun and sites in Cairo, including the ancient Tree of the Virgin Mary in Cairo’s Matariya suburb, where she is supposed to have rested and bathed the baby Jesus. The second stage, which will take a little longer, includes the Muharraq Monastery in the south of the country, Egypt’s oldest working monastery.
The rest of the pilgrimage, which goes through ISIS strongholds in North Sinai, may well have to wait. But plowing ahead with the Holy Family Trail anywhere in the country is a brave move. ISIS has threatened Christians repeately, saying in April they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons.”
ISIS has also targeted foreign tourists, most notably claiming to have taken down a Russian plane full of holiday goers over Sinai in the autumn of 2015. All 224 crew and passengers aboard the Metrojet flight died in the explosion.
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