Cairo (AsiaNews) - For the first time since the revolution that led to Mubarak's fall, Christians can openly travel to the sites visited by the Holy Family during their Flight into Egypt.
What is even more significant is the fact that the Egyptian government is providing support for one of the oldest and most important pilgrimages of the Coptic Church.
Last night, in the courtyard of the Coptic Museum (in Old Cairo), the Ministry of Tourism organised a ceremony to launch a new tourist programme, which is expected to attract at least 500,000 people by next year. The event was planned in conjunction with the Coptic Orthodox Church.
"Jesus was the first 'tourist' to Egypt," Patriarch Tawadros said. "For us, for our community, his stay in this land has been a blessing for the present and for the future." Egypt, too, he added, "is suffering from materialism"; however, "religious tourism, in particular pilgrimage, can strengthen everyone's faith."
The only canonical source that mentions this episode in the life of Jesus is the Gospel of Matthew. According to Christian tradition, the Holy Family fled to Egypt after an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him of Herod's intention of killing the child Jesus. The story about their three-year stay in Egypt is also found in some of the apocryphal Gospels, which are of particular importance to the Coptic Church.
According to these texts, Joseph, Mary and Jesus came north, from Sinai, and from there made their way to southern Egypt, staying at various locations where churches and places of worship stand today, staging points on the way of the pilgrimage.
The new tourist programme will include five to seven stops. The pilgrimage will start in the city of Al-Arish (North Sinai), crossing to the Eastern Delta of the Nile, until it reaches Wadi Natroun, home of four important monasteries.
Cairo's Coptic section (where the launching ceremony was held) will also be visited, including the 4th century Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga). According tradition, the church stands on a crypt where the Holy Family - Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus- are believed to have taken refuge. From there, the pilgrimage continues to Assiut and ends at the Monastery of Al-Muharraq.
By reviving the pilgrimage, the government hopes to breathe new life into the tourism sector badly damaged by the 2011 revolution.
At the same time, government support represents a fundamental change for Egypt's Christian minority (Catholics included), which went through trying times under the regime the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Under the Morsi government we were afraid," said Ramy Sabry, a Coptic businessman who was present at the launching ceremony. "For a whole year," he told AsiaNews, "we prayed every day for the regime to end."
"I have seen many Copts and many Catholics, even in my family, flee the country." But "when Morsi fell," he added, "we took to the streets and celebrated because for the first time in years we felt we could freely express ourselves and our faith, and build a better Egypt, everyone together, Christians and Muslims." (GM)