ZAAFARANA (AP).- Egypt's antiquities chief on Thursday unveiled the completion of an 8-year, $14.5 million restoration of the world's oldest Christian monastery, touting it as a sign of Christian-Muslim coexistence.
The announcement at the 1,600-year-old St. Anthony's Monastery came a month after Egypt's worst incident of sectarian violence in over a decade, when a shooting on a church on Orthodox Christmas Eve killed seven people.
The attack raised heavy criticism of the Egyptian government abroad and at home, by critics who say it has not done enough to address tensions between the country's Muslim majority and its Christian population, estimated at 10 percent of the 79 million population.
The government insists the shooting was a purely criminal act with no sectarian motives, and officials persistently deny the existence of significant Muslim-Christian frictions.
Top archaeologist Zahi Hawass took the opportunity to reiterate that stance as he showed journalists the work at St. Anthony's, an ancient compound at the foot of the desert mountains near Egypt's Red Sea coast.
"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 Muslim," he said, referring to the dominant Orthodox Coptic 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."
Hawass noted that the restoration work at the monastery was carried out by Muslims.
St. Anthony, widely revered as the founder of Christian monasticism, settled in this remote mountainous area at the end of the 3rd century to live in isolation. Upon his death, his followers built the monastery, which was completed around A.D. 350 remains in use to this day.
In the government-sponsored project, workers renovated the fortress-like ancient wall surrounding the monastery and the walls of its two main churches the 14th century Church of the Apostles and the 6th century Church of St. Anthony. They also renovated monks' quarters and a 6th century tower into which monks would retreat during attacks by marauding Bedouin tribes throughout the Middle Ages.
A modern sewage system was also installed for the monastery, which is home to several dozen monks and is frequently visited by Christian pilgrims.
Amid the renovations, archaeologists from the American Research Center in Egypt discovered the remains of the original monks' cells dating back to the 4th century under the Church of the Apostles. After they were excavated, archeologists in 2008 covered them with thick glass so that visitors to the church can see them below their feet. ARCE also renovated stucco paintings in Church of St. Anthony.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.