CAIRO, Sept. 21 (RNS)--Three days a week, the hopeful pack a tiny courtyard in the Convent of St. George, tucked behind the dusty cobblestone streets ofCairo's Coptic Christian quarter.

The barren housewife, the man troubled by spirits, the depressedteenager--all await Abuna Farag, a frail Coptic priest with a flowingwhite beard and a touch, many say, that heals.

A sick brother brought Wafat Kamel here one recent afternoon, herblue headscarf marking her as one of a smattering of Muslims in thecrowd.

"People told me there's an abuna who is good with God," Kamel said,using the Egyptian Arabic word for priest. "It's up to God to cure mybrother."

Bloodshed and intolerance may divide Egypt's Muslim majority andCoptic Christian minority, but belief in miracles unites many of them. Bothfaiths crowd Cairo's narrow streets and rural villages during mouleds--feast days for popular Christian saints and Muslim sheiks.

Egypt's folk Islam and Christianity are peppered with relics and wondrous tales. And Egyptians from both religions wait patiently in unkempt lines for local healers like Abuna Farag to splash fistfuls of holy water as a blessing.

So when reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary surfaced in August,Muslims also figured among the Egyptians flocking by the thousands tothe southern city of Assiut. The local Coptic clergy too has recordedsightings of a radiant Virgin hovering over St. Mark's church in Assiut,a city remembered best for violent sectarian clashes in the 1990s.

The sightings illustrate the complex play of faith and politics inEgypt, where 90% of the country's 65 million people are Muslim.Unlike the Coptic Church, government-sponsored Sunni Islam considersbelief in saints and miracles to be idolatry. Yet in many instances,experts say, the state quietly tolerates and even profits from mysticalbeliefs common among rural and working-class Egyptians.

"Folk Islam is an extremely benign form of worship," said Egyptiananthropologist Hania Sholkamy, who studies the phenomenon. "Unlikemilitant Islam, it's never been associated with any kind of violence."

The Virgin's reported apparition in Assiut is one of three in Egyptrecognized by the Coptic Church in recent decades. The most famous, in1968, drew millions of Egyptians to Cairo, where the Virgin was said tobe floating over the Coptic Orthodox church of Zeitoun. So large was theturnout of Muslims and Christians that local authorities organized foodstalls and ambulances to care for the needy and the injured.

The 1968 sightings also came at a politically fortuitous moment.

Egypt was still nursing humiliating memories of the 1967 Middle Eastwar, when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, and otherArab territories. "Religious leaders began to give their own interpretation to the sightings--that the Virgin Mary can't rest until the Muslims liberateJerusalem," said sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. "So it was a veryconvenient time for the government to mobilize support."

At St. George's convent, 45-year-old engineer Ellen Roushdy said shebelieved the latest reports of the Virgin were true. "I think she camefor a reason, but I don't know what it is," said Roushdy, who isChristian.

But Roushdy said she had no plans to travel to Assiut to check thesightings for herself. "I have a strong relationship with Virgin Mary,"she said. "I feel she's with me all the time. I don't need to see herwith my eyes."

Nearby, however, tour guide Ashraf Naggar scoffed at the reports.

"Virgin Mary is a good lady and we believe in her," said Naggar, aMuslim, as he led a group of American tourists through the convent'schurch. "But why should she appear? Why not Jesus? Why not Moses? Whydidn't the Prophet Muhammad appear again?"

Scholars trace popular faith in relics, shrines, and saints topre-Islamic Christian Egypt, and even to the days of the pharaohs. Thedynasties that later conquered and ruled the country also encouragedcultic worship as a way to extend their influence.

Today, Egyptians still visit the tombs of some 300 holy men andwomen in Cairo alone. Some are associated with particular powers. EachTuesday, for instance, young women circle and carefully sweep the Cairoshrine of Abou Soad, who is associated with fertility.

And thousands of Muslims like Marzout Amin visit al-Hussein mosque,said to contain the head of Prophet Muhammad's grandson, wrapped in agreen silk cloth.

"I am here to visit the tomb because of al-Hussein's relationshipwith the Prophet," said Amin, a member of Islam's mystical Sufi order."But if I receive help from being here, I welcome it."

Already, Amin said, he has witnessed the supernatural--a deadneighbor flying through the air. "It is a good sign for that man," Aminsaid. "It means he is close to God."

But such beliefs are frowned on by Egypt's Islamic establishment,which occasionally punishes those who spread them.

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