WADI NATRUN, Egypt—Egyptian security forces wielding assault rifles peer warily into the cars at each of the three checkpoints visitors must go through before reaching the ancient monasteries here about 60 miles west of Cairo. At the biggest checkpoint, on an exposed crossroads, young officers in bullet-proof vests are burning an upturned tree trunk to try to keep warm and to make some tea while waiting, and watching for threats.
During each stop, cars are searched meticulously, identity papers are collected, and visitors gently interrogated. The authorities don’t want to take any chances near a holy site that will soon be the focal point of a major Christian pilgrimage at high risk of attacks by the Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State. It could be the target of other groups as well, like the mob that just stormed a church in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo, on Friday.
Coptic Christians believe the Holy family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph—rested here in Wadi Natrun more than 2,000 years ago as they fled the persecution of King Herod shortly after Jesus was born. Now Christians are facing violent persecution by terrorists from the affiliates in Egypt of the so-called Islamic State, and sometimes violent friction with other groups as well.
Although it appears nobody was killed in the Giza incident, an established church that never won official government authorization for services was attacked, ransacked, and some of the parishioners beaten.
This year alone at least 83 Copts have been killed by jihadists. They have stormed cathedrals, churches and Christian homes. It is one of the highest death tolls recorded in a single year, according to rights workers.
The Egyptian interior ministry said last week it had cancelled the annual leave for its security forces and deployed 230,000 personnel to protect over 2,000 religious buildings nationwide during the holiday period, which culminates in Egypt on January 7, the Coptic and Orthodox Christmas.
Here in Wadi Natrun the Syrian Monastery, as it is called, is especially important because of its direct association with the story of Christ. The details of the trip to Egypt made by Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not included in the Bible, which has only one reference to “the flight into Egypt” in Matthew 2:13-2:15. But according to Coptic beliefs the family fled Bethlehem through North Sinai, down to what is modern day Cairo, before crossing to the Delta, hiding in Wadi Natrun, and eventually fleeing south to Upper Egypt.
And it is precisely that journey that the government in Cairo and, indeed, the Vatican now want to promote, despite threats by ISIS to launch further attacks on Egypt’s largest minority.
Copts may represent as much as 10 to 15 percent of the population and they trace their roots back to pre-Islamic times. They are not Roman Catholics, but in a historic move last October, Pope Francis blessed and ratified the “Holy Family Trail,” which means it becomes an official pilgrimage not just for the several million Christians in Egypt but the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Francis first mentioned the plan when he visited Cairo in April, and he has declared Egypt “a land where Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, as well as many prophets lived: a land that has been blessed with the precious blood of martyrs spilt throughout the centuries.”
A delegation from the Egyptian tourism ministry travelled to the Vatican two months ago to finalize the process. And last week a Vatican delegation, including officials who manage the Catholic Church’s pilgrimages, toured the country assessing the suitability of the historical sites where baby Jesus and his family allegedly rested.
The Egyptians hope the trail will be up and running by May and draw in a slew of foreign visitors who have stayed away in the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and the 2013 military take over led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who is now president.
Father Angelos, who is part of the team organizing the pilgrimage route, told The Daily Beast it sends an important message at a difficult time for Christians. He is the priest at the 4th century AD Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church in old Cairo, which is is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. The Copts believe it was built above the cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph hid for several months, and so is regarded as the most important stop on the holy family trail.
“We are spreading the word that Christ has not visited anywhere else but Egypt which makes Egypt like the Holy Land itself,” said Father Angelos. “It is a message of defiance from the whole of Egypt that it is combating terrorism. It also tells Christians here that they are not marginalized.”
The priest said there were a total of 25 sites along the pilgrimage route, eight of which were ready to be properly opened to visitors next year.
The project is split into two initial stages. The first will see the authorities complete work within the coming year on Wadi Natrun and sites in Cairo, including the ancient Tree of the Virgin Mary in Cairo’s Matariya suburb, where she is supposed to have rested and bathed the baby Jesus. The second stage, which will take a little longer, includes the Muharraq Monastery in the south of the country, Egypt’s oldest working monastery.
The rest of the pilgrimage, which goes through ISIS strongholds in North Sinai, may well have to wait. But plowing ahead with the Holy Family Trail anywhere in the country is a brave move. ISIS has threatened Christians repeately, saying in April they will pay for their faith with “a river of blood from their sons.”
ISIS has also targeted foreign tourists, most notably claiming to have taken down a Russian plane full of holiday goers over Sinai in the autumn of 2015. All 224 crew and passengers aboard the Metrojet flight died in the explosion.
A major attack on Christians happened in May this year, targeting the kind of journey visitors would be taking if they did the new pilgrimage. Gunmen opened fire on buses and cars transporting Egyptian children and families to the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in Egypt’s western desert. The militants boarded the buses, shot dead the men, and fired at the women and children before stealing their gold and fleeing.
A month before that, 44 people were killed in a coordinated double suicide bomb attack on a church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria during Palm Sunday services. The Coptic pope himself was leading the prayers at St. Mark’s Cathedral and narrowly missed being killed.
Earlier this year militants in North Sinai, where ISIS has anchored its operations in recent years, began working through a 40-name hit list of Christians they had drawn up. The assassinations forced around 300 families to flee to the comparative safety of the Suez Canal cities Ismailia and Port Said. Any Christian who dared to return faced death, local residents said.
One young mother of two, whom we’ll call Mariam, told The Daily Beast her husband William, 43, was gunned down by masked militants in May when he tried to return to Arish and re-open his shop to support his family, which had fled to Port Said.
Despite being destitute and bereaved, Mariam, 35, said she felt hope at the news Egypt would be home to an international pilgrimage route.
“Arish, despite what people think, is a holy place for Christians. It is our home and this trail would be a good message to the terrorists that they cannot take our lands from us,” she said.
President Sisi vowed in November to clear Sinai of militants in just three months, urging the security forces to use “the utmost force,” and in the process he appears to be backing the new pilgrimage route through Egypt. Father Angelos claims that Sisi has issued an “open budget’ for the project, and that the authorities already are plowing $3.4 million into redoing roads and infrastructure connecting the points along the trail.
Painstaking renovation is taking place here in Wadi Natrun where, in the Syrian Monastery’s main chapel, beautiful 8th century and 10th century frescoes depict the nativity scene, along with elegant Coptic and Syriac script. Outside, the ministry of tourism is building a dome to house a cinema where hundreds of visitors will watch videos about the flight into Egypt.
The 200 or so monks who live at the Syrian Monastery say they are looking forward to the trail being opened officially.
“Before the revolution we would be busy with visitors almost every day, now at most we are lucky if we get one tour a week,” said Anastasi, 48, who has been living in the monastery for 15 years.
He said the number of visitors to the monasteries first dropped after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising and then really plummeted in 2013 in the aftermath of the violent overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi.
At the time hardline supporters of the Islamist leader unleashed a wave of attacks against the Christian community, burning churches and ransacking homes. Since then the slew of terror attacks has scared more foreigners away.
“We might now get 100 visitors a week, but before we would get that number in a day. It is sad for us not to be able to share this special place,” he said.
In the Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church in Cairo, also on the new pilgrimage route, Christian tourism workers expressed similar woes.
“The numbers of foreign tourists dropped by more than half, although the numbers have picked up recently,” said Joseph Earnest, 41, who offers tours of the church and mans a security checkpoint into the building. “I lost my job as a tour guide. I had to work as a translator for journalists. Other colleagues worked in call centers, some just decided to leave Egypt.”
He said the pilgrims who travel to holy sites in Europe would now look to Egypt, after Pope Francis’s blessing.
“There is a misperception in the West that Christianity originated in the West, but the truth is it actually came from this area. This pilgrimage rectifies that misconception. Here in Egypt is where it all started,” he said.
Biblical experts say the Vatican’s interest in the holy trail is interesting, not least, because the Catholic Church does not officially recognise the story of the flight into Egypt which, apart from the brief mention in Matthew, is based on non-canonical gospels of the infancy of Jesus and apocryphal traditions formed from the 2nd Century AD onwards.
Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist at the University of Manchester, said the move to ratify the pilgrimage was part of Pope Francis’s mission to unify Christians: “This is an important step towards a long tradition from the last two popes of ecumenism.”
For Earnest the story of the flight into Egypt is particularly pertinent at a difficult time for the country and region.
“The Holy Family were refugees, they were fleeing violence, we’re talking about migration, which is very apt and important during this time where there is so much suffering,” he said. “We hope this move will be part of bringing peace and hope to Egypt, which we so badly need.”