The Coptic Church celebrates 50 years on the manifestation of the Holy Virgin on the domes of the church consecrated in her name in Zeitoun, Cairo
It was a mellow April evening in Cairo. In the middle class eastern district of Zeitoun, the mechanics and workmen at a large bus-park belonging to the Public Transport Authority were on duty. At around 8:30pm, two-and-a-half hours after sunset and already dark, they felt some commotion on the street. They rushed to see what the matter was; to their alarm they saw a young woman in white walking over the dome of the church opposite them on the street. “Take care!” they shouted, “you’ll fall off!” They thought she might be trying to commit suicide by throwing herself down. But no, there she stayed, hovering around the dome and not falling off.
The first who saw her was Farouq Muhammad Atwa; the workmen were all Muslim so they could not make head or tail of what they saw. But a crowd had by now gathered, and the Christians among them started crying in sheer excitement: “It’s our Lady! It’s the Holy Virgin!”
That was on 2 April 1968. The incident was the beginning of almost daily luminous manifestations by the Holy Virgin, which lasted some two years, over the domes of the church of St Mary in Zeitoun. The church, which was built in 1925, is believed to be situated on the path the Holy Family—Baby Jesus, His mother Mary, and St Joseph—trod while on their biblical flight into Egypt (Matthew 2: 13 – 21).
Finding the facts
In no time, word of the Holy Virgin’s manifestations got around. Thousands gathered each night to wait for her to appear. Many reported miracles that occurred then but, more strikingly, all who saw the Virgin reported a sense of indescribable ecstasy in her presence.
Pope Kyrillos VI, today canonised by the Church, sent a fact-finding commission headed by Anba Gregorios, Bishop of Coptic Studies and Scientific Research. The commission carefully investigated the matter and wrote its report. On 4 May 1968, the Coptic Church confirmed the manifestations.
The official Statement of the Coptic Orthodox Church said that the Holy Virgin had been appearing at the Zeitoun church since 2 April 1968 (24 Parmhat 1684 AM) in various forms: sometimes in full height, at other times as a bust in a window. She frequently moved and walked on the roof of the church and over the domes; she knelt in reverence in front of the cross which shone bright with light, and stretched her hands in blessing to the thousands of people gathered to see her. Luminous heavenly bodies shaped like doves were frequently seen flying around at high speed. The manifestations lasted for long periods, as on Tuesday 30 April 1968 at dawn, for 2 hours 15 minutes.
Countless miracles of healing were reported, the statement said, and verified by doctors to be of miraculous nature.
“With full faith and great joy and humility of a thankful heart,” the statement witnessed to the details of the Holy Virgin’s manifestations. “May God grant that this miracle be a symbol of peace to the world, and a blessing for our nation as was prophesied: ‘Blessed be Egypt My people’.”
The manifestations were also confirmed by the Coptic Catholic Patriarch, Cardinal Stephanos I (Stephen I). Father Dr Henry Ayrout, rector of the Catholic Collège de la Sainte Famille, run by the Jesuits in Cairo, also confirmed the luminous manifestations, as did Rev. Dr Ibrahim Said, head of the Protestant Evangelical Ministries in Egypt. On the evening of 28 April 1968, an envoy from the Vatican arrived, witnessed the manifestations, and sent a report to Pope Paul VI in Rome.
An official report by the General Information and Complaints Department in Cairo declared: “Official investigations have been carried out, with the outcome that it is an undeniable fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing over Zeitoun Church in a clear and bright luminous body seen by all present in front of the church, Christian or Muslim.”
With time, the 250sq.m. Holy Virgin’s of Zeitoun, built by the wealthy Copt Tawfiq Khalil Ibrahim, and modelled after Constantinople’s famous Hagia Sophia, could no longer accommodate the growing congregation and the huge number of pilgrims who flocked to the site. President Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided to move the bus park opposite the church elsewhere, and allocate its land to the Coptic Church to build a cathedral on. The foundation stone for the new cathedral was placed by Pope Shenouda III on 25 March 1976. It is now the second-largest in the Middle East and is known as the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin of Zeitoun; the original church is known as the church of the Holy Virgin of Zeitoun, or simply the Church of the Manifestation.
Preparing for the jubilee
This month, May 2018, the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated the golden jubilee of the Holy Virgin’s manifestation in Zeitoun. The event should have been commemorated on 2 April but that date coincided with Palm Sunday this year, so the jubilee celebration was moved to the month of May which witnessed 50 years ago the official declaration by the Coptic Church on the manifestation.
Preparations for the jubilee had started in 2014 when Pope Tawadros II assigned Anba Yu’annis, who was then General Bishop but is today Bishop of Assiut, to plan and oversee the prospective celebrations. Anba Yu’annis is famous for his passion for praises for the Holy Virgin, and has for years presided over Kiahk (Kiyahk) Praise at the Holy Virgin’s in Zeitoun. The Kiahk Praise is the Midnight Praise sung during the Coptic month of Kiahk which closes with Coptic Christmas on 29 Kiahk; the Praise focuses on the Holy Virgin as Mother of God; it is widely-loved and its events well-attended by the congregation.
Anba Yu’annis explained to Watani that back in 2014, a commission was formed to prepare for the jubilee, working through five groups.
The first, he said, worked on the accurate chronological documentation of the manifestation starting 2 April 1968 till the papal confirmation of that manifestation some five weeks later in a statement read by Anba Athanasius, Metropolitan of Beni-Sweif from 1962 to 2000, to an international press conference on 4 May 1968. Anba Athanasius, who was member of the fact-finding committee formed by Pope Kyrillos VI, had run up the stairs leading to the dome to see the Holy Virgin up close. “She was only 3 – 4 metres away when I saw her,” he had told Anba Yu’annis.
Documenting the event
The second group, Anba Yu’annis said, investigated and documented testimonies of the manifestation; the testimonies yielded 17 five-minute documentaries among which were several captured by Egypt State TV 50 years ago. “These documentaries represent an official testimony by the State,” Anba Yu’annis noted.
The third was concerned with collecting material covered by local and international media on the manifestation 50 years ago; Watani’s detailed coverage featured highly there. The fourth registered more than 500 miracles that occurred during the manifestations; only 50 were picked, however, for printing in a book prepared by the commission.
As to the fifth line, it focused on the blessings bestowed by the heavenly manifestation. Anba Yu’annis summed them up by saying that it brought Heaven closer to Earth; “it was a glimpse of Divine love to those who cross the valley of tears,” he said. It was a special blessing to the Coptic Orthodox Church and to the people of Egypt which features so frequently in the Old Testament. It also worked countless miracles of healing for persons who had lost all hope they would ever be healed of their ailments. Finally, he said, the manifestation of the Holy Virgin led to building the new cathedral in Zeitoun, which now acts as a beacon of light to the entire district and congregation.
The official jubilee celebration began on 10 May and lasted to the 13th. It was preceded with a number of choir performances that sang praises to the Holy Virgin at the theatre of St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo. The choirs came from several Coptic Orthodox churches; some were deacon choirs that chanted mainly to the traditional cymbals and triangle, whereas others sang modern orchestral hymns. The concerts played to full houses and thrilled audiences.
Holy Mass was held daily at both the Church of the Manifestation and the cathedral, and Vespers services in the evening included praises for the Holy Virgin and her Zeitoun manifestation. Her icon was carried in a procession that toured the original church and crossed the road to the new Cathedral which it also toured.
Message of hope
On the evening of 12 May, Pope Tawadros headed to the Zeitoun church and cathedral of the Holy Virgin where he was received by a joyful drumming band of the church scouts. He opened a photography exhibition to commemorate the occasion and presided over Vespers. He was asked by the priests of the Holy Virgin’s to hand Anba Yu’annis a souvenir gift they wished to present him with in recognition of the huge, dedicated effort he exerted in preparing for the jubilee celebration. To great cheers and ululations of joy, the Pope handed Anba Yu’annis the gift.
Sunday 13 May, the final day of the celebration, saw Pope Tawadros preside over Holy Mass in Zeitoun. A large number of bishops and priests participated and, predictably, the church overflowed with worshippers. The Pope expressed joy at the event, and said the manifestation was at the time a strong message of support and hope to Egyptians. Egypt was then passing through a condition of collective depression, low self esteem, and hopelessness in the wake of her defeat in the 1967 Six Day War.
“The message,” Pope Tawadros said, “was that all was not lost; Egypt would not be broken or defeated.” In October 1973, he reminded, Egypt went back to war and won back Sinai in what had seemed a feat impossible to achieve.
“Egypt is a country beloved of God, as the Bible says,” the Pope stressed. He said that one of the messages of the Holy Virgin’s manifestation was that our hearts should look to God instead of being attaching to earthly concerns.
“Our generation is fortunate to have lived through such great events in the history of our Church,” Pope Tawadros noted. This year 2018 marks the jubilee of the manifestation of the Holy Virgin, also 50 years on the return of part of the relics of St Mark the Evangelist who brought Christianity into Egypt in the first century. St Mark was martyred in Alexandria in AD68, but his relics were stolen from Alexandria and taken to Venice in 828 by Venetian merchants. There the relics remained till June 1968 when an agreement between Pope Kyrillos VI and Pope Paul VI allowed for part of the relics to be handed to the Coptic Church and brought back to Egypt.
This year 2018 also marks 100 years on the foundation of Sunday Schools in the Coptic Orthodox Church in 1918 at the hands of St Habib Girgis (1876 – 1951). But this is another story, and Watani promises to cover it.
23 May 2018