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Religious Tourism

Monks and residents collide in tiny Assiut

By Hazel Heyer, eTN Staff Writer  Nov 26, 2009

Assiut is a tiny, reserved, quiet tourist town in Egypt with few post-Pharaonic attractions gaining widespread tourist attention. For one, the Al Muharraq Monastery near the western side of Qusqam, some 50 kilometers northwest of Assiut, is a 12-meter-high fortressed monastery built by Anba Pachoimous at the beginning of the century.

It includes the oldest church consecrated in the Christian world in the 38 AD (with the fort built later by King Xenon in 474 AD), followed by the Church of Mar Girgis built in 1898 and later, the Church of the Holy Virgin built in March 1960. It is believed the Holy Family visited this place for six months and 10 days after fleeing Palestine on their way to Egypt.

Unfortunately, lately a series of disturbing reports on clashes between monks from the al-Muharraq Monastery and the family residing in Halim Pasha Dus villa has affected tourism to the area. The in-fighting was sparked by disputes over a private property ownership. According to Mamdouh Thabit of the Al Mis al Youm, clashes took place after a small clandestine gathering of about 25 monks in Dus' villa garden. They were claiming the restoration of the property as an endowment of the monastery. The monks criticized the police negative reaction. For their part, the members of the resident family confirmed that they have owned the villa since 1942, supporting their claim strongly with documents.

On the contrary, Father Pachoimous, the monastery secretary, confirmed the reason behind the monks secret meeting is to protect the monastery endowments the family wants to seize with forged documents. The priest points out that the monastery has the ownership documents/ title and knows the real parties behind such rift which may be aggravated if not resolved soon, said Thabit.

Despite supposedly a place of worship and inner peace, the Al-Muharraq Monastery seems to be accursed with sectarian violence and burdened with issues on religious divide. Not long ago, Father Philoxenos of the Al-Muharraq Monastery said Christians should not visit Jerusalem except with their Muslim brothers. So he added the Al-Muharraq Monastery is a second choice for pilgrims . He said this explains why its walls are built in the same way as the walls of Jerusalem. Official opinion of the Coptic Orthodox Church is that a pilgrimage to the Monastery of Al-Muharraq Monastery is equal to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Religion always seems to draw a wedge between people in the tiny tourist village of Assiut and other factions. However, there is Coptic and Muslim divide that seems to blur in the middle - fortunately. These believers co-exist in the village.

Aside from the Coptic features of the town, Assiut has many Islamic highlights including the Al Farrgal Mosque of Abu Tig, some 27 Km south of the city. It is one of the grandest mosques in Upper Egypt. The Al Farrgal is characterized by two minarets with the grave of Mohamed Al Farrgal, one of the leading figures of the Muslim world. On Al Thawra street stands the the Fouad Institute founded by Egyptian King Fouad.

First built in 1928 and launched in 1938 by the monarchy, the Islamic style building hosts students mastering jurisprudence in Islam and sciences. In the Village of Dashlout, Dairout lies the Abu Al Oyoon Mosque, 7k km northwest of Assiut. With very intricate architecture, the mosque houses the tomb of Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Al Oyoon, the grandson of the grandmaster Ibrahim Abu Al Oyoon Al Sharif Al Magrabi who came from Morocco to Egypt in 1926 AD. Finally, the Al Mugahedeen Mosque established in Assiut in the Ottoman days circa 1706 AD, is the monument founded by Mohamed Bey, built in a distinct Ottoman design, with a very high, richly-decorated minaret in typical Mamlouk fashion.

When the Muslim world focuses on the Hajj and Umrah, pilgrims go about finding post-Mecca tour options in this budding, quaint Egyptian locality such as Assiut.

Meanwhile, Copts struggle with news on clashes between regular property owners and the men who are supposed to be propagating peace in Assiut.

Monks and residents collide in tiny Assiut

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