ZAAFARANA, Egypt — Egypt's chief archaeologist unveiled on Thursday an extensive renovation of the oldest monastery in the world, touting the work at the 1,600 year-old-site as a symbol of peaceful coexistence between the country's Muslims and Christians.
It's the message Egypt's government has been emphasizing ever since a lethal drive-by shooting at a church a month ago in a southern town: No troubles here – dismissing new worries over sectarian divisions between Egypt's mainly Muslim population and the large Christian minority.
"The announcement we are making today shows to the world how we are keen to restore the monuments of our past, whether Coptic, Jewish or Muslims," he said, referring to the dominant Christian sect in Egypt.
"The incident in Upper Egypt can happen between two brothers," said Hawass when asked if there was any connection between the Jan. 6 shooting and the timing of his announcement at the monastery. "I want everyone to forgot this incident."
Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities spent eight years and $14.5 million dollars to carry out a comprehensive restoration and conservation of the ancient monastery, situated in the rugged desert mountains near Egypt's Red Sea coast.
It was in this remote spot, at the end of the 3rd century that renowned Christian ascetic St. Anthony took up a residence in a cave, with little more than a spring and some palm trees to sustain him.
Upon his death in A.D. 356, his followers built cells and created the world's first Christian monastery, which now houses 120 monks, the burial place of four saints, and ancient church paintings dating to the Middle Ages.
Monks say the restoration and discovery of the cells of the monks sheds important light on the early years of monasticism and bolsters the country's long monastic tradition.
"For the monastery itself, this is very important, we have found a missing part of our history with this restoration, for there is nothing written about the beginning of the monastery," said Father Maximus, who oversaw the renovation.
In the government-sponsored project, workers renovated the fortress-like ancient wall surrounding the monastery, several outbuildings, and its two main churches – the 15th century Church of the Apostles and the 4th century Church of St. Anthony.
A modern sewage system was also installed for the monastery, which receives a million visitors every year.
"The monastery has become a very important retreat for spiritual relaxation for visitors, especially when they visit the cave of St. Anthony," he said.
For Hawass, the high profile director of Egypt's antiquities department, the completion of the project was an opportunity for Egypt to show its critics the depths of its tolerance.
"I believe today is important because it can answer all the questions of the people all over the world and it can show how the Muslims can stay here eight years restoring and making impressive work," he told journalists while touring the site.
The drive by shooting in the southern Egyptian town of Nag Hamadi on Jan. 6, Coptic Christmas Eve, killed six Christians and a Muslim guard, shocking Egypt's Christians and bringing widespread condemnation internationally over sectarian relations in the country.
Egyptian officials insist the shooting was a purely criminal act, without sectarian motives. Authorities categorically deny there are any problems between Muslims and Christians and say there is national unity, with all groups living in harmony.
The state often maintains that attacks against Christians, especially in poverty-ridden southern Egypt, are isolated, criminal incidents, often related to disputes between clans.
But Youssef Sidhom, the editor of the weekly Coptic newspaper Al-Watani, dismisses the government stance on the Jan. 6 attack.
"Targeting Christians coming out of church on Christmas eve, this cannot be fully a criminal affair, it is a criminal sectarian affair," he said. "We have to face for once our bitter heritage that has accumulated during the last four decades, making such hostilities more frequent than before."
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population of 79 million, complain of discrimination, saying they have insufficient representation in parliament or the security forces and that education and media don't reflect their community. They also point to restrictions requiring security officials' permission to build or even repair churches.
"When the state wants to renovate a Jewish temple, an ancient church or an ancient mosque, no one can stop the state. The problem comes when we want to renovate a church, things get tough and we have to apply to the security apparatus to approve it," Sidhom said.
Leonard Leo, the chairman of the U.S. government's Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the State Department is "very worried about increased violence against Christians in Upper Egypt."
"There are quite a number of laws in Egypt which blatantly discriminate against Christians and other religious minorities in a way that creates a climate where people don't respect Christians," he told Fox News on Jan. 28.
In its splendid isolation at the foot of mountains surrounded by the crisp desert air, the monastery seems far away from troubles elsewhere. In a sign of its turbulent past, one of the restored buildings is a tall tower only accessible by a wooden drawbridge, where the monks would take refuge during assaults by hostile Bedouin tribes in the Middle Ages.
"We are living in the same land, drinking the same water – we are Egyptians, all of us. What is going on is something not normal," said Father Maximus about the shooting in Nag Hamadi.