|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
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'Their pain is too deep'In spite of their sorrow and anger, thousands of people assembled peacefully at Al-Muharraq Monastery to hold an annual festival. Rana Allam reports from Assiut
About 15,000 people gathered on Sunday at Al-Muharraq Monastery, also known as the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, 60 kilometres from the southern city of Assiut. This is a holy and peaceful place: the wall around the compound encloses an area of 30 quiet feddans, contains five churches and is home to about 100 monks.
AGAINST THE ODDS: Facing an onslaught of sensational media coverage, monks at Al-Muharraq Monastery bristle at accusations against a former monk. From left: inside one of the churches at Al-Muharraq; the monastery's entrance guarded by minimum security; the deputy head of Al-Muharraq (top right); celebrating festivities at the monastery photos: Sherif Sonbol
(photos: Sherif Sonbol)
The monastery is highly revered. According to tradition, it was built on a spot where the Holy Family stayed for six months during the flight into Egypt. But it has been the talk of the town for the past two weeks, ever since the independent Al-Nabaa newspaper published a story, with graphic pictures, claiming that one of its former monks, Adel Saadalla Gabriel, also known as Barsoum Al-Muharraqi, had sex with women in the precincts of the monastery itself -- an allegation hotly denied by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Last week's gathering was to celebrate a religious festival or mulid, held annually from 18-28 June to celebrate the anniversary of an event said to have taken place in the early Christian era -- the Virgin Mary's miraculous release of several imprisoned Christian converts.
The newspaper's article labelled Gabriel a monk. However, he was defrocked for deviant behaviour in 1996 and no longer has any connection with Al-Muharraq Monastery. Copts were outraged by the article, and demonstrated inside and outside the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo and at the monastery in Assiut. Monks said a large number of Muslims joined in the Assiut demonstrations.
This year's festival took place at the monastery as usual and, as usual, people milled about, prayed, ate snacks and chatted as religious chants and music filled the air. But over all hung a sombre note. Tempers flared the moment the name "Al-Nabaa" was mentioned. Suspicion was quickly followed by derision, and then by rage.
"Who are you, anyway? Why should I talk to you? You have no idea how we feel," one middle-aged man grumbled as he pushed his teenage daughters away so they could not talk to reporters.
Besides the anger, sadness seems to have taken a grip. "The festival was a much happier event in previous years," a Muslim vendor of pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary told Al-Ahram Weekly. "I guess their pain is too deep."
A middle-aged woman, tears running down her face, overheard him and shouted: "Our holy place a brothel? How dare he?" She was too distraught to continue.
One monk, Father Wissa, accused the press of misrepresentation. "We don't want to talk to anyone, since they haven't told the truth," he said, going on to quote verses from the Bible to calm himself and the people around him. He was so upset that he was shivering. "We forgive them," he said, "but God will avenge his holy place."
As Father Wissa walked away, some in the crowd gave vent to angry words. "Do you honestly believe that this shameful act could have been performed here?" reporters were asked. "Why don't you [in the press] do something?" Some told us they expected that Al-Nabaa's editor-in-chief Mamdouh Mahran would flee the country and escape punishment. Words of comfort were hard to find, especially when a central question remained: who gave Mahran the videotape from which the published pictures were taken?
Assiut is a city of almost three million people, with Muslims making up a slight majority. Many are simple farmers, and many of them challenge the story altogether.
"This didn't happen, all the monks here are good people. This is a foul lie," Shadia, a young, uneducated Christian woman said. Others agreed, claiming that the accused monk was a "good man who performed miracles."
Some went as far as to say that the photographs were not of the defrocked monk. "It is not him; he is a thin man, but the photos show a man who is well-built," someone in the crowd said.
The monastery's deputy head, Father Bakhomious, also denied the person in the photographs was Gabriel. "Computers and technology can do anything; maybe they placed his head over someone else's body; it is not him," he insisted .
For most people in Assiut, the problem is Mahran. "The journalist who said that Al- Muharraq had been turned into a brothel was targeting the unity between Muslims and Christians," Father Bakhomious said.
It is customary for Muslims to visit the monastery, asking for the monks' blessings and celebrating the mulid with the Copts. Some Muslims also have jobs there. "We have an average of 20,000 visitors every year, a quarter of them Muslim," he said.
The facts, as explained by Father Bakhomious, are clear: the ex-monk was expelled and defrocked five years ago. "He used to spend many nights outside the monastery, which is against the rules," Father Bakhomious said. However, Gabriel tricked the Cathedral in Cairo into believing that he wanted to repent. "By mistake, he was accepted as a monk in another monastery, from which he was later expelled for misconduct."
Regardless of the newspaper's allegations, the arrangement at Al-Muharraq is clear proof that it would have been all but impossible for indecent acts to take place on the premises. Entering the monastery itself is not a problem, but the monks' dormitory building is well guarded. The monks occupy small cells, separated by thin walls through which sound travels well, and no one could enter a cell unobserved. Each cell contains a 90 cm-wide bed, and not a large bed as shown in Al-Nabaa. Each, also contains a small desk, and there is no space for anything else.
Although the offending issue of Al-Nabaa was confiscated and Mahran is on trial, Copts say angrily that they will not accept anything less than the permanent closure of the newspaper. "The government has to take action against this newspaper; the least they can do is close it," Father Wissa told us angrily. "And even this won't ease the pain."
Father Bakhomious added: "People are outraged by the newspaper and its language. If the ex-monk made a mistake, he should be punished, but claiming that the monastery has been turned into a brothel is an attack on all Christians."
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