By Sami Aboudi
CAIRO - Mohammed Fathi worked his brush gently over an icon of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, removing soot from its surface inside a church gutted in an attack by Islamist militants this month.
“It takes a lot of careful work to do that,” Fathi said. “We have to do a lot of tests with chemicals to try to restore the icon to its original condition.”
The 26-year-old is one of a vast group of mostly Muslim craftsmen tasked with restoring St Mary’s Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba after militants set it on fire on May 7.
Egypt’s military rulers have ordered its restoration at a time when tensions between Christians, who account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and Muslims are on the rise.
Attacks have triggered protests and pose a challenge for Egypt’s new rulers, under pressure to impose security while seeking to avoid the tough tactics against Islamists used by deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
The ground floor of the four-storey church was gutted in the fire, destroying 10 out of 27 old icons beyond repair.
Wednesday, a team of mostly Muslim restorers — working for one of Egypt’s biggest construction firms known as The Arab Contractors — huddled in one corner, using special chemicals, paint and brushes to rescue the remaining paintings.
“My job is to restore historic art pieces, be they Muslim, Coptic or Jewish,” Fathi said.