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 of Cairo's Coptic Christian quarter.

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

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

"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 my brother."

Bloodshed and intolerance may divide Egypt's Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority, but belief in miracles unites many of them. Both faiths 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 to the southern city of Assiut. The local Coptic clergy too has recorded sightings 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 in Egypt, where 90% of the country's 65 million people are Muslim. Unlike the Coptic Church, government-sponsored Sunni Islam considers belief in saints and miracles to be idolatry. Yet in many instances, experts say, the state quietly tolerates and even profits from mystical beliefs common among rural and working-class Egyptians.

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

The Virgin's reported apparition in Assiut is one of three in Egypt recognized by the Coptic Church in recent decades. The most famous, in 1968, drew millions of Egyptians to Cairo, where the Virgin was said to be floating over the Coptic Orthodox church of Zeitoun. So large was the turnout of Muslims and Christians that local authorities organized food stalls 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 East war, when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, and other Arab territories. "Religious leaders began to give their own interpretation to the sightings--that the Virgin Mary can't rest until the Muslims liberate Jerusalem," said sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. "So it was a very convenient time for the government to mobilize support."

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

But Roushdy said she had no plans to travel to Assiut to check the sightings 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 her with 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, a Muslim, as he led a group of American tourists through the convent's church. "But why should she appear? Why not Jesus? Why not Moses? Why didn't the Prophet Muhammad appear again?"

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

Today, Egyptians still visit the tombs of some 300 holy men and women in Cairo alone. Some are associated with particular powers. Each Tuesday, for instance, young women circle and carefully sweep the Cairo shrine 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 a green silk cloth.

"I am here to visit the tomb because of al-Hussein's relationship with 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 dead neighbor flying through the air. "It is a good sign for that man," Amin said. "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.

Earlier this month, for instance, Egypt's State Security Court sentenced Sufi leader Manal Wahid to five years in prison for defaming Islam. Besides proclaiming herself a prophetess, Wahid had allegedly ordered her followers to disregard such basic Islamic tenets as praying five times a day, and considering Muhammad as the final prophet.

"The basic miracle of Islam is the Qur'an," said Oussama Kinawy, a scholar at Al Azhar University, the seat of Sunni learning in the Middle East. "Because it contains all of what Islam contains."

Birthday celebrations for an Egyptian televangelist who died two years ago have also stirred controversy.

Opponents claim festivities for Sheik Shaarawi, whose populist sermons once attracted millions of followers, amounted to awarding him semi-sainthood.

Yet the Virgin Mary, revered in Islam as well, is a more delicate matter. Indeed, the government is capitalizing on the flight by Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus to Egypt almost 2,000 years ago. With an eye on millions of potential tourist dollars, the state has helped restore ancient churches and other Christian sites.

The Ministry of Tourism also printed a tourist guide mapping out the Holy Family's three-year odyssey across Egypt. The path wends its way south, past desert monasteries and Nile-side villages, to Assiut. Passages carefully describe each stop along the way where miracles, past and present, are remembered.

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