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Amid new attacks, Egypt's Copts preserve heritage

Thursday - 10/17/2013, 6:16pm  ET

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

THE RED MONASTERY, Egypt (AP) -- Locked inside a 6th century church in a desert monastery are some of the jewels of early Christianity -- ancient murals in vivid pinks, greens and reds depicting saints, angels and the Virgin Mary with a baby Jesus, hidden for centuries under a blanket of black soot.

Italian and Egyptian restorers are meticulously uncovering the paintings, some of the earliest surviving and most complete examples of early Coptic Christian art. But the work, in the final stages more than a decade after it started, is done quietly to avoid drawing attention -- and there's no plan to try to attract visitors, at least not now.

"This is our heritage and we must protect it," said Father Antonius, abbot of the Red Monastery where the Anba Bishay Church is located. He takes it as a personal mission to protect it. The church's heavy wooden door has only two keys. He keeps one and a young monk he trusts keeps the other.

"I don't think there is a church anywhere in Egypt that even begins to match the beauty of this one," Antonius said, beaming like a proud father.

The little known Anba Bishay Church offers a striking example of how Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Church jealously guards its heritage against formidable odds -- whether decades of neglect, discrimination by the Muslim majority or the violence by Islamic militants, who have gained significant power since the 2011 ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The protection of its heritage took on greater urgency when 40 churches were wrecked, burned and looted in a pogrom-like wave of attacks in August, blamed on Islamic militants. Coptic leaders say the attacks are the worst in centuries.

The attacks laid bare a worrisome failure or unwillingness by authorities, as well as moderate Muslims, to protect the churches. Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 90 million citizens, were left with their deepest sense of vulnerability in recent history. Egypt's powerful military pledged with great fanfare to restore the churches. But Christians say that, two months later, they are still waiting for concrete steps.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of Christianity's earliest branches. It was born in Egypt, and almost all Egyptian Christians throughout the centuries have belonged to it. But it never ruled in Egypt. Instead, Copts were subjects in a succession of empires, from the Romans and Byzantines through various Muslim dynasties.

The result is a complicated legacy. A historic sense of persecution engrained a deep secrecy in the Church, which has long turned inward for its own protection. The lesson that Copts long absorbed -- take care of yourselves and don't involve outsiders -- has been applied to their conservation efforts.

Complicating those efforts, the Copts' material civilization is fragile. They have not left mighty stone temples, tombs and mosques like Egypt's pharaonic or Muslim rulers, noted Imad Farid, an expert on historical Coptic architecture.

Instead, Copts traditionally built in mud brick, which deteriorates over time, especially in the eroding moisture and floods in the Nile River valley. Desert monasteries, preserved by aridity, constitute most of what is left of Coptic civilization. They have been the traditional repositories for the Church's artistic treasures, from icons and murals to rare manuscripts.

Past generations of Copts "left us not with a history of rulers but of a people and their daily lives," Farid said. "The monasteries have preserved their way of life. They are like conservation zones for human and intellectual heritage."

But many monasteries were abandoned over the centuries, in part because of a shortage of monks. Over time, their mud brick chapels and hermit cells fell prey to elements, earthquakes or depredations from Bedouin attackers.

For example, the Red Monastery and the nearby White Monastery were once united in a sprawling complex to which some 5,000 monks belonged. Both were deserted by the 8th century and have only been resurrected in the last 30 years.

"Our heritage is disappearing because of random restoration work, urbanization and the work of the ignorant. I don't want future generations to curse us for not documenting what we have now," said Father Maximus, a monk and one of the church's top conservation experts.

A slender 59-year-old who carries an IPad and an IPhone wherever he goes, Maximus has led a team of Italian restoration experts traveling across Egypt since 1996 to save as much as they can of Coptic heritage. His team, including Egyptian experts and backed by the American Research Center in Egypt, has worked on the murals of Anba Bishay Church since 2002, in the desert on the edge of the Nile River valley, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Cairo.

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