Amid an escalating sectarian divide, a predominantly Muslim Egypt is touting the completed renovation of the world's oldest monastery as a symbol of tolerance and harmony with the Christian faith community.
• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
In Egypt, longstanding tensions between the Muslim majority and Christian minority periodically erupt in violence. The most fatal of the past decade was a drive-by shooting at a church on Coptic Christmas Eve in January that killed six Christians and a Muslim security guard. But amid the escalating sectarian divide, the Egyptian government says it is committed to maintaining the country’s diverse religious history by preserving historic religious sites.
Last month, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities announced the completion of a five-year renovation of St. Anthony’s monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in the world, touting it as a symbol of the country’s religious tolerance and harmony.
“I am very proud that I am able to restore not only Pharaonic, but also Islamic and Coptic and Jewish [sites], because all of these are a part of the Egyptian heritage,” says Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
The renovation of the 1,600-year-old monastery, located at a desert oasis 100 miles southeast of Cairo, cost about $14.5 million and employed 500 Muslim laborers who lived and worked within the monastery’s grounds – itself a symbol of coexistence, says Mr. Hawass. “During Ramadan [the month-long holy Muslim fast], the monks used to eat with [the workers],” he says, referring to the daily meal that breaks the sunrise to sundown fast.
St. Anthony’s monastery was founded around AD 350 in homage to St. Anthony, widely believed to be the founder of Christian monasticism, who lived and died in the area. The renovation revealed the oldest Coptic cell in the world, dating from the 4th century AD. Today, according to Hawass, the active monastery, which houses dozens of monks, attracts 1 million visitors and pilgrims a year.
Hawass hopes that by preserving Egypt’s diverse past, he can heal Egypt’s troubled present. “Things like I’m doing … can make people know that we are one people,” he says. “There is no difference between a Copt or a Muslim, all of us are Egyptians.”