C A I R O, Egypt, Sept. 11, 2000 -- Every night Marcelle Maurice comes to Saint Mark’s church in the little town of Assiut, Egypt, to stand outside and watch the sky. She says she sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary every night.
“I saw the Virgin Mary, flashing lights and big white doves,” says Maurice, clutching her 5-year-old daughter.
Like her, thousands of Egyptians have been flocking to this southern Egyptian town more than 300 miles south of Cairo, once known as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.
Outside the church, hopeful pilgrims each night chant “Come, Mary, come,” or “Your light is on the cross,” beseeching the Virgin Mary to appear between the two towers of the church, as they say she has done on the previous nights.
Muslims also revere the Virgin Mary as the mother of Jesus Christ, who is considered a prophet in Islam.
Witnesses say the apparitions occur in the wee hours of the morning. “ I saw Mary, she was beautiful, wearing a blue veil,” says Sarwat Hani Marzouk.
“Light was emanating from her hands, then doves start flying, they were as big as ducks.” Others say they simply saw strobe-like lights and big doves flying around the minarets of the church.
‘A Blessing for Egypt’
People living around Saint Mark’s church began reporting the appearances last month.
“The first time we heard of the Virgin’s apparition was on Aug.17,” says one local resident. “We did not give it too much importance as we thought it was an isolated case.”
But the day after, he said, “more people reported the same and then hundreds and thousands.”
Father Labib, from the nearby Orthodox Copt Dronka Monastery, is excited by the sighting. “ If you look for the source of the light , you can’t find it. This is light from heaven” he says.
Bishop Mina Hanna, secretary of the Assiut Council of churches, says the Virgin chose to appear in the town of Assiut because she had journeyed there during the Holy Family’s exile from Herod’s Palestine.
Coptic Christians, who form the bulk of Egypt’s 6 million Christians, believe the Holy Family stopped in Assiut on their way back to Palestine.
The Bishop would not say whether he has seen any appearances of Mary at the church, but, he said, “This is a blessing for Muslims and Christians alike. It is a blessing for Egypt.”
Christians make up about a quarter of the population of Assiut.
Fortunate Turn of Events
Skeptics, however, say the apparitions are rather timely. Since the massacre of 58 foreigners in 1997 at the popular tourist site of Luxor, Egypt has struggled with external perceptions of its religious tolerance.
Assiut , among other towns along the Nile, was closed to the outside world for security reasons.The government has began an ambitious 3-year plan to revamp the sites where Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus are said to have stayed during their exile, hoping to promote religious tourism.
Egypt’s main weekly magazine, Rosa el Yousef, dismissed the apparitions as a “legend.”
But British and Egyptian journalists who have been to Assiut said suddenly there were flashing lights in the sky and they could not find the source.