On April 28-29, Pope Francis will become the second pope after St. John Paul II to visit Egypt. The largest Arab country, Muslim-majority Egypt is home to a large but persecuted Christian minority. Its important role in the Bible, from the Book of Exodus to the Holy Family’s flight from Herod, is well known. Less familiar to Christians in the West, however, is the remarkable series of alleged Marian apparitions that occurred in the suburbs of Cairo in 1968-1971. The Holy Father’s visit to Egypt is the perfect time to recall these momentous events, for which a satisfying materialist explanation has yet to be formulated.
It was April 2, 1968, just one year after Egypt had been defeated by much smaller Israel in the Six-Day War, leading to the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula and the deaths of 2,000 Egyptian troops. Farouk Mohammed Atwa, a Muslim mechanic, was working across the street from St. Mary’s (Orthodox) Coptic Church in Zeitoun, a suburb of Cairo. He suddenly saw a beautiful young woman standing atop the church’s roof. Atwa believed that she was about to commit suicide, so he ran to get help. Quickly, a crowd of onlookers gathered around the church. Many people saw the woman, but she quickly vanished.
It is estimated that from 1968 to 1971, at least one million Egyptians (and numerous foreigners) saw a luminous female figure atop the church’s roof. The apparitions most frequently occurred on feast days; some lasted several minutes, but the longest went on for up to nine hours. Many witnesses recall Mary holding an olive branch, a symbol of the peace that then (like now) was so desperately needed in the Middle East; blessing the crowds; bowing in front of a cross; and walking across the church’s domes. At one point, a crowd estimated at 250,000 was present during an apparition.
In addition to Mary, many witnesses to these apparitions also report seeing luminous doves flying at night (which these birds do not normally do) and bright colors flashing (reminiscent of the Miracle of the Sun in Fatima). Sometimes Mary was seen accompanied by St. Joseph or cradling Jesus, who appeared to be about twelve years old. Many recall the scent of incense in Zeitoun. As in Lourdes, many miraculous healings confirmed by non-Christian medical professionals were recorded among those present in Zeitoun in 1968-1971, as were numerous conversions. Interestingly, Mary said nothing at Zeitoun, choosing to communicate through silence.
Disturbed by the growing crowds, Egypt’s secular authorities and police ordered an investigation of the unusual events. However, they could find no lighting, projectors, or any other devices necessary to pull off a hoax within a fifteen-mile radius of St. Mary’s Church. Egyptian newspapers published numerous photos of the alleged apparitions, and Egyptian television broadcasted video footage (a collection of these materials can be found here). By contrast, papers in Europe and the Americas—undoubtedly preoccupied with the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, student protests from Paris to Mexico City, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—weren’t very interested in these apparitions, although there was some coverage (for example, on May 4, 1968, The New York Times featured a short article with the headline: “Visions of Virgin Reported in Cairo”).
Naturally, the Marian apparitions at Zeitoun have their share of skeptics. Most of them offer psychological explanations. For example, Robert Bartholomew and Erich Goode write: “It appears that the Marian observers were predisposed by religious background and social expectation to interpreting the light displays as related to the Virgin Mary.” The problem with this explanation is that more than eight in ten Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, while according to most estimates only about 10-15 percent of the country’s inhabitants are Christians, overwhelmingly Orthodox Copts (a small minority of Copts are Eastern Rite Catholics). Although many Muslims respect Mary, the only woman mentioned in the Koran, her cultural significance in Islam is nowhere as momentous as in Christianity. Witnesses to the unusual events at Zeitoun were Muslims, Christians, and non-believers. Interestingly, Egypt’s second president Gamal Abdel Nasser, a practicing Sunni Muslim who at the same time was deeply influenced by Marxism and tried to make Egypt a French or Turkish-style secularist state, was among the many witnesses of the apparitions and believed in its authenticity.
The Coptic Church quickly recognized these apparitions. Pope Blessed Paul VI sent two envoys to Zeitoun when the apparitions occurred. While the pope received favorable accounts, the Vatican could not officially comment upon the authenticity of the apparitions, as they occurred in an Orthodox church. Still, many Egyptian Copts, both Orthodox and Catholics, found them very moving.
Many consider the apparitions to be Mary’s “return” to Zeitoun, as Copts have traditionally claimed that Zeitoun was one of the places where the Holy Family stayed during the Flight to Egypt. In 1918, Ibrahim Khalil, a pious Orthodox Copt who owned some land in Zeitoun, was allegedly visited by Mary in a dream. Our Lady told him to build a Coptic church honoring her on his land, promising she would bless it fifty years later. Construction of St. Mary’s was completed in 1924, and 1968, when the apparitions in Egypt began, was exactly fifty years after Ibrahim Khalil’s dream. Whereas many believers in the apparitions consider Mary’s message to be one of love and peace, tragically the church was bombed by ISIS last year, killing at least twenty-five worshipers.
Zeitoun wasn’t the only site of Marian apparitions in modern day Egypt. From August 2000 to January 2001, thousands reported to see Mary appear at Assiut, one of the most Christian cities in Egypt (Copts make up half of Assiut’s population). Many of the same elements as in Zeitoun were reported: the smell of incense, luminous doves, and Mary walking across the church’s rooftop. Like Zeitoun, Assiut is one of the places believed to be visited by the Holy Family during its flight to Egypt.
Naturally, whether one believes in the apparitions at Zeitoun or not is a matter of faith, however suggestive the evidence in favor of them —countless photographs, conversions, and miraculous healings—may be. Nonetheless, Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Egypt is a perfect opportunity to recall this remarkable event. Jesus told Thomas that blessed are those who believe but have not seen. Yet there are many examples throughout Church history, ancient and modern, or Marian apparitions or Eucharistic miracles showing that God still makes His presence tangible in our midst. Perhaps the apparitions at Zeitoun also attest to this.
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