Egyptian Copts celebrated Virgin Mary’s feast, a holiday to commemorate the ascension of the body of the Virgin Mary to heaven after the end of her earthly life according to the Christian tradition. It is celebrated on 22 August and is preceded by a 14 day fast which is broken as part of the celebration. The fast includes abstaining from all animal products except fish.
This year, however, the fast is to break today since the 22nd is a Wednesday and is a day of fasting for many, as is Friday. The holiday holds an important cultural significance for Christians of different denominations and celebrations will take places in churches nationwide.
The celebrations include a mass in church, with chants specific to the occasion, as well as the breaking of the fast in church. On the night before the mass, the night prayer, Asheyya in Arabic, prepares the faithful for communion. The celebrations in Cairo and Alexandria are largely church-based with families often celebrating individually after church.
In Upper Egypt, however, the celebrations are usually large and colorful. They precede the holiday and consist of religious celebrations in major cities like Assyut, Minya, and Sohag with Assyut being among the largest and usually having important figures like the governor attend in recent years.
The Virgin Mary in particular holds an important cultural status amongst Egyptian Christians besides her traditional given religious significance. Frequent and recent claims of sightings of the Virgin Mary have been widely reported by Egyptians. Sightings are claimed to have been seen in the Virgin Mary church of Warraq in 2009, and famous apparitions include churches in Zaitoun and Assiut in 1967 and the 2000s respectively.
The recently reported concerns about religious freedom in the present so-called “Muslim Brotherhood era” were proven unfounded during this celebration and the holiday was observed by Egyptians as usual. The declining economy and the general lack of rule of law are more likely to have influenced the celebration as with any other during recent days, with the sales of religious icons likely to have suffered.
Christian holidays in Egypt are normally acknowledged by the government or the state and religious holidays in general are considered times of reciprocation. This week saw Christians congratulating Muslims on Eid, and Muslims following suit on the celebration of Virgin Mary. The sectarian tension that is often mentioned seems to fade when Egyptians offer their congratulations on both a collective and an individual level and religious celebrations are an integral part of Christian-Muslim relations and larger Egyptian mainstream culture.