The Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Khled Fahmy denied that any sectarian problem might be looming on the horizon because of the alleged approval by the Roads and Bridges Authority of a new road in Fayoum, some 150km southwest of Cairo. The road, which should link the south of Fayoum with the oases in the Western Desert, has been designed to go through the monastery of St Macarius in Wadi al-Rayan, so that it effectively divides the monastery into two halves. The monks have accordingly sent SOS pleas to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab to intervene and preserve the unity of the monastery.
Father Daoud, spokesman for the monastery, told Watani that the approval was issued last month and that work is scheduled to begin right after Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice which ends next Tuesday, 7 October. Fr Daoud insists that there are alternative routes which the road can follow; he actually confirms that the monastery has provided the relevant authorities with proposals of two alternative routes that are shorter and can be less costly.
Furthermore, he says, the projected road passes through the national park of Wadi al-Rayan which includes within its boundary the UNESCO World Heritage Site Wadi al-Hitan (Valley of the Whales). The Wadi Hitan is famous the hundreds of fossils of the earliest forms of whales. How could the Ministry of the Environment, which is in charge of national parks, have approved the new road? Fr Daoud asks.
Mr Fahmy, who was on a visit to the monastery this morning, told Watani that the matter of the new road was being debated between the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Transport on one hand and the monastery on the other. He said that alternative routes were being considered, since a road that traverses the park protected area may be harmful to the environment and would, furthermore, involve very high costs to build. As to talk of the road dividing the monastery in half, Mr Fahmy said, that was a gross exaggeration. Yet even so, the Ministry does not wish for any conflict with the monks, he said. “I assure you,” he said, “that the matter has absolutely no sectarian undertones, and will be resolved to the satisfaction of every party involved. The priority will be public interest.”
Third century caves
The St Macarius monastery in Wadi al-Rayan is the site of mountain caves that were used by Christian hermits as far back as the third century. The cave walls still carry Christian inscriptions from those times. In modern times, monks started re-inhabiting these caves in 1960 and until 1969 when they were ordered by Pope Kyrillos VI to leave and go restore and develop St Macarius Monastery in the Western Desert. In 1998, another group of monks headed by Fr Eleisha went to Wadi Rayan for a monastic revival there. Even though their relationship with the mother Coptic Orthodox Church has been bumpy, their population grew; they built a church, and cultivated a plot of land near the caves. Conflict erupted between the monks and the Environment Ministry which, in 2011, accused the monks of encroaching on the national park of Wadi al-Rayan because they built a wall to protect them from the all-too-frequent attacks by local Bedouin during the security breakup that followed the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011. The conflict was resolved in 2013 by the government sanctioning the building of the wall and the monks signing a document acknowledging that the grounds were government property.
7 October 2014