Episode 14: Our Lady of Zeitoun; The Marian Apparition of Cairo, Egypt (1968-70)

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Note: Last year, inspired by words from Fr. Robert Spitzer, I ran a 10-part series in our bulletin (Aug. 12 – Oct. 14, 2018) on modern day miracles that had been heavily scrutinized by science (available when you visit our parish website and pull up the bulletins from those dates). Spitzer had said that 93% of those who lose their faith today in America claim that their primary reason for this loss of faith is that they do not believe religion can hold up to the scrutiny of modern science. In other words, faith in science is replacing faith in God for many people. Spitzer’s solution to this modern phenomenon was to challenge Church leaders to make a focused effort to report Church documented miracles that have confounded science in recent decades. In that spirit, I shared a cross section of ten widely studied miracles for your consideration. At the request of several of our Sacred Heart students I decided to bring back a 2nd year of episodes on this topic. So far this year I have discussed the so-called “incorruptibles” (saints who have died but whose bodies have not decomposed), new scientific findings on the Shroud of Turin and the Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano, Italy. This weekend, I bring you…

Episode 14: Our Lady of Zeitoun; The Marian Apparition of Cairo, Egypt (1968-70)

From the perspective of Western Catholics, Our Lady of Zeitoun, or El-Zeitoun or Our Lady of Light are not widely known Marian titles. The apparition events that took place in Cairo, Egypt between 1968 and 1970 in a district known as Zeitoun are equally unknown it seems, so let me start by offering a bit of background on the Catholic Church that is present there. Egypt is a nation that is well over 80% Islamic but there is a robust Christian minority. We who call ourselves Roman Catholics are often woefully ignorant of just how much liturgical variety exists under the big tent known as the Catholic Church but our Latin Rite is just one of the many cultural flavors that Catholicism comes in. There are at least 23 others. The liturgical rite that predominates within Egypt is known as the Alexandrian Rite and practitioners of this rite are most often referred to as Coptic. This word is apparently an ancient word for Egyptian (i.e. Coptic loosely means “Egyptian Christian”). Although there are also Coptic Orthodox Christians who are not in union with the Pope in Rome, Coptic Catholics are fully Catholic. According to their tradition, they trace themselves back to the evangelist Mark who became the 1st bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, from which the rite took its name. They say Mark first proclaimed the Good News in Cairo in 42 AD and from this new Christian home base arose one of the four most influential schools of theology within the global Church as a whole (the other three being Jerusalem, Antioch and Rome). There were many theological giants early on who came from the Alexandrian school, such as St. Athanasius, who gave us the developed theology on the Trinity. There were also mystical movements that sprang up like that of the desert hermits under St. Antony of Egypt who later also inspired the monastic evolution under St. Pachomius and St. Basil in the East and eventually St. Benedict in the West. Suffice it to say, the Catholic tradition of Egypt in both rich and ancient. It is within this Christian context that the most widely witnessed Marian Apparition ever to take place occurred.

What are the characteristics about this apparition that are most notable and that you should be aware of. Well, first of all, there have never been a larger number of witnesses to such an event. Unlike Tepiac (2 visionaries), Fatima (3 visionaries) or Lourdes (1 visionary), Cairo’s event was witnessed, according to the most conservative estimates, by at least a quarter of a million people. Most place this number at 2-3 million however. Secondly, although many Coptics and Coptic Orthodox viewed the events, they were also widely witnessed by Muslims. It is sometimes said that everyone who lives in Cairo today either witnessed the events or knows someone who did. Another detail which sets this apparition apart from others is that it was photographed by many people. Digital photography and common types of computer photo manipulation did not come about until after 1975 so these photos were taken with more traditional types of cameras. A number of the most famous images, including the common one often displayed today on internet sites taken by Ali Ibrahim, were examined and determined to be authentic. Finally, many confirmed medical miracles took place during that two-year period of time in Cairo among those present, which lends further credibility to the supernatural character of the event.

The apparitions took place on top of the dome of the Church of St. Mary in Cairo. Locals say the church dates back to 1924 when a wealthy real estate developer named Kalil Abraham was making plans to develop the land the church now sits on into a resort hotel. Instead, in Abraham’s own words, one night he had a vivid dream in which Mary appeared to him to tell him to build a church on the site instead and to request that it be named in her honor. She promised him in this dream that, if he did, a future miracle would take place on this spot. According to the local faithful, the significance of the spot dates all the way back to the Holy Family in exile in Egypt. They held a belief that the Holy Family had settled there for a time which, for them, meant that the ground was holy. They also maintain that Mary’s promise made to Abraham in 1924 was ultimately kept on April 2, 1968. On that evening, two local Muslims, working as parking attendants and a bus mechanic named Farouk Mohammed Atwa, looked up at the dome of the church one night and reported seeing a young woman being lit up in the night sky. They said later that they thought it was some troubled teen attempting to commit suicide by jumping from the dome, which was 40-50 meters up. They reported this appearance as others gathered. People described her as being self-illuminating (that is, the light was coming from within her and not from around her) and they also agreed that she seemed to be wearing blue robes and cloaked in an outer red one. Everyone seemed to feel that the woman was looking directly at them personally and they described her at varied times, smiling on them, blessing them and/or kneeling in prayer before the cross on top of the dome and then the image would disappear. This apparition appeared for a second time on April 9 and this time it drew a crowd of tens of thousands. The police could not disperse the crowds, try as they might. And for the next two years, there was more of the same. Crowds eventually reached hundreds of thousands. Amongst the crowd was the then president of Egypt, Gamar Abdel Nasser and the local bishop.

Representatives from the Coptic Orthodox Church under patriarch Kyrillos as well as from the Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI (prompted by the Society of the Sacred Heart Sisters) studied these events and they were jointly approved for devotion on May 5, 1968. Local police also investigated. Initially they had claimed the apparition was simply a trick of reflected light and believed someone had gained access to the rooftop to cause mischief. However, they could not recreate the lighting effect and the sheer number of photographs taken from many angles and from as far away as 15 miles seemed to have ruled out known methods of photographic manipulation. They eventually gave up trying to explain the cause and, as the woman who appeared always disappeared in the end, they were never able to produce a suspect. Why did this unexplainable event happen? Well, from the perspective of faithful Coptics, Christians were being heavily persecuted at that time in Egypt. Jihad was being called for by extreme Muslims in the wake of their defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and were taking up the practice of marking the doors of Christian homes with crosses in blood. Some were martyred during that era and others were intimidated to leave neighborhoods. It was in this context that Our Lady of Light appeared and the fact that she was seen by so many Muslims as well as Christians seemed to have softened and changed the prevailing religious relations at that time bringing about a brief era of increased religious tolerance. Both Christians and Muslims experienced miracles as a result of the events and many conversions to the Coptic Church occurred. Did I blow your mind? If so, check out photos of this event online.

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