For the first time in the history of modern Egypt Muslims and Christians engaged in public dialogue at the popular level. On May 15 an evangelical pastor and a Muslim preacher discussed the topic: The Concept of Salvation in Christianity and Islam. Nearly 250 people crowded into the downtown lecture hall of the Sawy Culture Wheel on the banks of the Nile River in Cairo. They received a complete presentation, replete with Bible and Qur’anic verses, and were given ample time for questions and answers. An event with almost no precedent, it proceeded with both excitement and respect, in sharp contrast to general practices of inter-religious communication.
Representing the Christian position was Pastor Nagy Maurice of the largest evangelical church in Egypt and the Arab world, Qasr al-Dobara, located in the heart of downtown Cairo. Initiative for the seminar, however, came from the Muslim preacher Fadel Soliman, director of Bridges Foundation, an organization dedicated to the peaceful worldwide presentation of Islam, and long time leader of a mosque in New Jersey. Knowing the difficulty Islam has to gain a hearing in the Western world he did not want the same error repeated in Egypt. When first approached to lecture on this topic he insisted a Christian leader join him to speak about his faith. Perhaps normal in the West, the Sawy Culture Wheel agreed to take this risk.
An increasing religiosity among both Muslims and Christians has made the discussion of religion among the most sensitive topics in society. On the one hand, dialogue between top level religious dignitaries projects the image of national harmony, which correctly describes historic relations and official policy but downplays a growing sectarian tension. On the other hand satellite preachers from both religions frequently engage the opposing creed with polemics and occasional vitriol. The result is a wary culture that knows the topic can lead easily to troubles, and a government that desires to avoid these troubles at all costs.
Soliman first sought out a representative from the Coptic Orthodox Church, which composes 90-95% of the Christians in Egypt. His overtures were met with caution and then polite refusal, prompting his frustration. “They are missing an opportunity to speak of their faith. They have created in their minds a belief of persecution, and then act according to it.” Yet according to Sawsan Gabra, director of the Center for Arab West Understanding, “Orthodox would only welcome such an event if it were held in the church. They do not like public gatherings.” Indeed, there was no official Orthodox representation, even in the audience, reluctant to join an unsanctioned event. According to Sheikh Sa’d al-Din Fadel, director of religious programming at the Sawy Culture Wheel, though their events are published in advance, “We did not inform the authorities of this seminar, being unsure about their reaction.”
Each presenter was given twenty minutes to describe the position of his faith, and then five minutes for summation. The moderator emphasized this was a dialogue, not a debate, and pressed the need for respect upon the audience. Fadel estimated the crowd to be about 75% Muslim, but was likely more as it included over 100 Muslim women clothed in hijab, the head covering seen as normative by most Egyptian Muslims. By the time Maurice began his remarks the original chairs were all filled, and organizers were busy trying to accommodate the overflow, which spilled into the aisles making for standing room only.
The atmosphere was both expectant and curious, as people listened attentively to Maurice and Soliman present clearly the message of salvation as described in the divergent scriptures. Neither disparaged the beliefs of the other, and applause was given to all in the end. There was nary a disruption in the audience from either side.
During the question and answer period the majority of queries elicited further explanation about Christian theology. According to Mohamed Hassan, an Islamic Studies Masters student in the audience, this was appropriate. “Most people in Egypt are unable to discuss religion without it leading to trouble, because they are ignorant of the other’s beliefs. Today we started to break down this wall.” The normalization of religious dialogue is quietly but historically underway.