EGYPT: Is it the Virgin Mary or just a curious flash of light?
Hundreds, if not thousands, have been lining up for hours every night at the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in a Cairo neighborhood just off the Nile. Many of them claim that a mysterious light hovering above the church's domes is an apparition of the Virgin Mary who will bring Christian Copts prosperity and relief in a time of national and religious struggle.
The crowds began appearing Thursday evening when a number of residents spotted a flickering light. No one was sure where the illumination was coming from, and word quickly spread that the light took the shape of the Virgin Mary wearing a blue gown and standing in the sky between the church's two high crosses.
Since then, many Copts, and more than a few Muslims, have spent their evenings camping outside the church to either be blessed by a glimpse of the "miraculous" scene or to figure out just what's happening in the night sky. It has turned into a pilgrimage for the curious and the devout at a time when Egypt is beset by poverty, high unemployment and a bruised sense of identity, especially after the national soccer team's recent loss to Algeria knocked it out of contention for the World Cup.
"The scene on Saturday was huge when we saw the lightning and white pigeons flying around us. White pigeons always accompany apparitions like these," one Copt told The Times.
Copts form 10% of Egypt's population of 80 million, and many firmly believe that this is the fourth time an apparition of Virgin Mary has taken place. The most famous incident was claimed to have happened in 1968, a few months after the country's military defeat at the hands of Israel and the latter's occupation of the Sinai peninsula.
At the time, some people assumed that she has appeared to help Egypt -- a predominantly Muslim nation -- through a time of crisis. Some Copts believe the Virgin is again appearing at a time of turmoil. There has been no official word from the Coptic Church.
"I had a seven-hour train journey to come and see the apparition," Magdi Sam'aan, a farmer from Asyut told The Times. "Our life in upper Egypt is very rough because of my limited income, but I believe the Virgin Mary has come at this specific moment to lend me and the whole country a hand."
However, and according to some intellectuals, it is this very belief of apparitions related to crisis that causes people to be easily influenced by such "alleged phenomenon."
"What is going on now is a result of people's massive feeling of corruption, social injustice and the financial gap between various classes in Egypt," said prominent Coptic scriptwriter Atef Beshay. "Some people are desperately seeking 'aid' from anyone, even if this aid will only come from the Virgin Mary's apparition.
"We also shouldn’t disregard the increasing religious tensions between Muslims and Copts. Some Copts wait for phenomenon like this because it gives them some sort of mental advantage over Muslims," Beshay said.
Writer Youssef Al Qaied agrees with Beshay that tough living has forced many Egyptian to turn to spiritualities: "When finances and living expenses are not easy to secure, people find a safe haven in creating spiritual beliefs that can pull them out of their miseries even if those beliefs have no practical or scientific bases."
Unlike their Coptic counterparts, most Muslims are not convinced. Many of them have seen light flashes in recent days, but certainly don't believe it was the Virgin Mary.
"I was one of the first to notice the laser-like lights. But nothing happened more than this. The shape of Virgin Mary never appeared in front of my eyes," said Mohamed Soliman, who lives one block away from the church.
Columnist Khaled Muntaser said the light over the church could be scientifically explained: "Lightning in these situations could be no more than a glow accompanying any electric discharge in the sky of a certain area. This glow is scientifically known as St. Elmo's fire, and it its more likely to occur during winter. It is just a static electricity like the one we sometimes feel while taking off a polyester shirt."
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: People waiting outside Virgin Mary Orthodox Church. Credit: Al Destour.