DRONKA: Hundreds of thousands of poor Coptic pilgrims and a handful of Muslims converged on the southern Egyptian village of Dronka on Wednesday where they believe the Holy Family stayed 2,000 years ago.
May God have mercy on us, He knows what we are enduring, cried Father Jacob, a monk, as a steady stream of pilgrims shuffled past to the cave overlooking the Nile where they believe Jesus, Mary and Joseph once sheltered.
The Bible gives only a few verses about the flight to Egypt, on orders from the Archangel Gabriel after King Herod decided to kill all male newborns under his jurisdiction, but eastern Christians believe plenty more happened in exile.
Coptic texts, rejected as apocryphal by the Catholic Church, speak of a lengthy three-year odyssey by the Holy Family through Egypt, punctuated by miracles and other divine events.
Sister Agapi, a nun at Dronka s convent, told how people living in the cave offered their hands to the Holy Family to give them hospitality in the cave, at the southernmost point on a 2,000-kilometre ziz-zag.
The 400 kilometres along the Nile from Cairo to Dronka is peppered with chapels and other holy sites, but this is where the most important annual pilgrimage takes place at the height of summer and under tight security.
The pilgrims want to return to the time of Christ, as if it were yesterday, on the same ground He trod on with the Virgin, said Father Abanob from the nearby city of Assiut.
Some priests also said in hushed tones that they want to counterbalance a rise in Islamism in this part of Egypt, home to large numbers of Copts and also to violent sectarian clashes in the 1990s.
Not one single church has been allowed to be built in Assiut for the last half-century, said Abanob, whose community accounts for between six and 10 percent of Egypt s population of 76 million.
Processions, baptisms and other ceremonies take place round the clock and around the holy cavern, surrounded by huge and unattractive parochial buildings perched on the ochre mountainside.
Babies, at a rate of 600 a day, are taken by the meaty hands of bearded priests and immersed in water three times in stone fonts under gold-painted icons of the Holy Family.
My little Catherine is already 10 months old, but I waited for this moment for her baptism, said Manal Farid, a local farmer.
Every night for 10 days in a row processions march through the night in expectation of seeing what they believe to be a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary. But the vision did not appear this year.
I saw her in 2003 – she appeared to us 13 times with a bright halo above the mountain, said Wahid Michael, deacon of a Coptic church in Rome.
Some Muslim families – who consider Christ a prophet but not the son of God – are also to be found in the crowd.
I venerate Mary just like them, said Yasmina Fathi, a veiled 17-year-old. May her blessings be upon us.
The pious gathering is also a fair, with stalls set up under multi-colored tents alongside aging fairground rides near the camp where the poorest pilgrims sleep on the ground.
Wadi Eid, 28, paid LE 2 to have a blue cross tattooed on the back of his wrist – the easiest way to identify Egypt s Christians.
It s my fourth, and next year I ll get another one, he said, grimacing from the pain but then breaking into a grin. Agence France-Presse