ANALYSIS: Is Egypt’s religious tourism industry ready for Christian pilgrimages?

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Tourism in Egypt has been hit by successive blows that have driven several countries to warn their citizens of traveling there and have even led some, including Russia, to take strict measures towards the implementation of such warnings.

Pope Francis’s visit to Cairo in April, which went without incident, unlike many anticipated, inspired a new way out of the impasse.

Aside from beaches and historic landmarks, religious tourism would attract a different crowd and that was how the revival plan started to take shape.

The most significant step taken towards making this plan materialize was the flying of the Egyptian minister of tourism to Rome where he got the pope’s official blessing for the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt, thus putting the 25 sites by the which the family—Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, and Joseph—passed on the global Christian pilgrimage map.

While this development seems to herald a new era in Egyptian tourism, it still brings back the same old concerns about general safety together with new ones about receiving large numbers of Christians in a country that is not exactly devoid of sectarian tension.

Ishak Ibrahim, head of the Religious Freedom Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, argued that it is not possible to promote Christian pilgrimage in a country where Christians are marginalized. “We can’t be that detached from reality and that is why promoting Christian pilgrimage has to be accompanied by serious steps towards acknowledging Christian presence,” he said.

Ibrahim cited the example of text books that do not focus at all on Coptic history or the role of Copts in Egyptian civilization which, in turn, does not promote cultural diversity. “Pilgrims are not going to visit sites in a country whose citizens have no respect for their religion,” he added. Former deacon at the Coptic Orthodox Church Beshoy Sami agreed with Ibrahim and said that dealing with sectarian sentiments among Egyptians is the only ways Christian pilgrimage can succeed in Egypt. “The state has to stop solving Muslim-Christian clashes customary reconciliation sessions rather than the law and the people need to stop viewing Christians as inferior,” he said. “Some countries are not even aware that there are Christians in Egypt.”

Melbourne-based Coptic journalist Ashraf Helmi expected the recent murder in Cairo of Egyptian priest Samaan Shehata to have a negative impact on Christian pilgrimage trips, especially that the state did not handle the situation in the right way and only referred to the murderer as mentally ill. “Added to this is the number of religious edicts from extremist preachers who incite people against Christians and teach them intolerance,” he said in a statement. Helmi warned that Shehata’s murder might, in fact, lead many European countries to ask their citizens not to go to Egypt in general and for religious trips in particular.

In fact, journalist Mayada Seif sees the attack on Shehata as a reaction to announcement of starting Christian pilgrimage to Egypt. “It is like a message to the world that Christians who come to Egypt will be killed because Egypt is only for Muslims,” she wrote.

Journalist Osama Salama notes that the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism expects to receive two to three million Christian pilgrims annually and wonders how prepared the state is for such numbers. “The minister of tourism said a film will be made about the holy sites in Egypt to be marketed across the world and pamphlets in many languages are to be printed about those sites. But then what? Is this enough?” he wrote. Salama listed a number of problems that might make pilgrimage trips a failure. “Most of the sites in the journey of the Holy Family are in a deplorable state and need a lot of maintenance.

The tree in whose shadow Virgin Mary sat in Cairo, for example, is totally neglected and the area surrounding it is filthy.” Salama cited other issues such as lack of good accommodation in most of the governorates where the sites are located as well the unpaved roads leading to them, which leads to a lot of accidents. “As for trains going to these areas, they are notorious for never leaving or arriving on time in addition to occasional breakdowns and accidents.”

For Salama, it is also not wise to start receiving pilgrims without training a team of tour guides that can accompany them and who should be knowledgeable about this historical era. “Most guides we have are trained in ancient Egyptian history and those won’t be fit for such a job.”

Economic expert Medhat Nafea is more optimistic for he does not believe that lack of hotels is an obstacle since it is a different type of tourism. “The spiritual nature of pilgrimages allows for a simple and rather primitive atmosphere where luxury accommodation is not needed,” he wrote.

While admitting that turmoil in North Sinai can be a problem, Nafea argues that this is bound to change soon. “With the Palestinian reconciliation and the rapprochement with Hamas, normalcy is expected to be gradually restored to Sinai, which makes it safe for pilgrims to visit sits of the Holy Family journey there.”

Nafea noted that Egypt does get tourists who visit holy sites, but they are few and are not part of a full pilgrimage program. “Most of them come from Jerusalem while many are already in Sinai for recreational purposes and that is why it is hard to know their exact number. They do not exceed a few hundreds in all cases.”

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