- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

CAIRO Thousands of Christian pilgrims from across the world will find armed guards surrounding a sycamore tree said to have provided shelter for Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus when they escaped from Herod to Egypt 2,000 years ago.
It will be the first Coptic Christmas when believers will be stopped from touching the Virgin Tree. More than a dozen guards and plain-clothes security men will be on hand to control devout pilgrims who, the Egyptian government claims, often snap off twigs, pluck leaves and remove bark as mementos.
The decision to deploy armed guards has angered local Copts, who say that their presence undermines the sanctity of the site and implies that the pilgrims are thieves.
The tree originally stood in open countryside outside Cairo, but with the expansion of the city, it is now surrounded by the densely populated, dusty suburb called el-Matariya.
For decades, the Egyptian government refused to include the site on the country's heritage list of places to be protected. As a result, the neglected tree fell victim to unscrupulous locals, who sold branches and sap to pilgrims.
Eventually, the gnarled sycamore became so bare that no buds or branches could be reached without a stepladder. Two years ago, the sorry state of the Virgin Tree attracted the attention of the National Egyptian Heritage Revival Association, headed by Mounir Ghabbour, a Copt.
He spent more than $900,000 restoring the site, including building a walled compound to protect the tree and placing specially commissioned pictures of religious icons close by. Now, however, the government has decided to deploy its own guards.
"It was a labor of love because the Virgin Tree means a lot to Christians, especially Copts," Mr. Ghabbour said. "We invested the money to return the tree to its former glory, and now the government offends us by placing all these soldiers around the site at this holy time of year. One unobtrusive guard is enough; any more is an affront to our religion because it implies we cannot take care of our own tree."
Christians from across the world regularly pay homage at the tree because, according to legend, it is where the Holy Family took shelter after fleeing the murderous King Herod. Many pilgrims believe that, because of the tree's direct link to Jesus, it contains miraculous properties and that when touched, it can help to heal the sick.
Mamdouh Kiriakos, an Egyptian-born Copt who has spent the past 24 years living in Australia, has made a special trip to the tree with his family.
"All my life I have wanted to come here because it is a very special place for Copts," he said. "But it's not a comfortable feeling arriving in such a spiritual place and then finding a dozen soldiers with guns."


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