In the latest terrorism to strike Egypt, nine people died in Friday morning attacks around St. Mina Church in the southern Cairo suburb of Helwan.
Two Coptic Christians were shot and killed in their nearby storefront. Six others died as they exited morning worship.
The remaining victim was a Muslim police officer guarding the church.
Local reports suggest there were two gunmen. One was apprehended by security forces, foiling his efforts to enter the church. State television showed a second attacker killed, wearing a suicide belt. ISIS claimed responsibility.
The church guard, meanwhile, was hailed as a martyr.
One week earlier, Egypt’s Minister of Islamic Endowments declared the guarding of churches to be “a legitimate and national duty.” Those who die defending Christian houses of worship are to be considered martyrs.
“In our war against terrorism,” said Mokhtar Gomaa, “there’s no difference between Muslims and Christians.” Last month, 300 people were killed in a terrorist attack on a mosque in the Sinai, where Christians have fled violence.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi praised the police effort against the “vicious” attack, and urged heightened security. Two weeks ago, Egypt assigned more than 230,000 police to guard churches in advance of the Christmas holidays.
Even so, last week hundreds of local villagers ransacked an unlicensed church in Atfih, 60 miles south of Cairo. They were offended at rumors the nondescript building would install a bell.
Meanwhile, the Coptic Orthodox Church will hold its primary Christmas celebration in the largest church in Egypt, on land donated by the state in its still-under-construction new administrative capital city. (Orthodox Christians commemorate Christmas on January 7.)
Muslims should join Christians in solidarity, said Ahmed al-Tayyib, grand imam of al-Azhar…
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Dr. Kamal Boraiqa is a lecturer at al-Azhar University and a member of al-Azhar Center for Dialogue, the al-Azhar Observer for Combating Extremism, and the Egyptian Family House. With a PhD from al-Azhar in Islamic Studies, he has served as an imam at the Santa Rosa Islamic Center in the United States and as a visiting scholar at the UK’s Birmingham University Center for the Study of Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations, and is a member of the African Union steering committee to link policy makers and religious leaders.
Dr. Kamal, as an al-Azhar scholar, what aspects of Pope Francis’ visit and speech resonated with you the most, especially in terms of your responsibilities in dialogue?
The meeting itself was a message to the whole world that the three heavenly religions – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – are against violence, fanaticism, and radicalism. One who contemplates the speeches of Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib will learn many lessons.
First, that faith is incompatible with violence, for violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression. Religious leaders are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the “absolutizing” of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute. We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God. Holy is his name, he is the God of peace.
Religion, however, is not meant only to unmask evil. It has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, today perhaps more than ever. This is done through teaching the younger generations, because education becomes wisdom if it draws out of men and women the very best of themselves, in contact with the One who transcends them and with the world around them, fostering a sense of identity that is open and not self-enclosed.
Sincere dialogue is the only alternative to civilized encounter, lest we are left with the incivility of conflict. Wisdom seeks out the other, overcoming the temptation to rigidity and closed-mindedness. It is open and in motion, at once humble and inquisitive. It values the past and sets it in communication with the present, within suitable hermeneutics.
Pope Francis demonstrated this when opened his speech with “As-Salaam Alaikum.” This traditional Muslim greeting in Arabic means, “Peace be upon you,” and reflects his great respect and appreciation of the Muslim faith.
But he followed up also with a practical call. He said that in order to prevent conflicts and build peace, it is essential that we spare no effort in eliminating situations of poverty and exploitation where extremism more easily takes root. He also spoke forcefully about blocking the flow of money and weapons to those who provoke violence.
How does al-Azhar contribute to the fight against radicalism?
Al-Azhar’s strategy to combat radicalism is both local and international. Its system of education is built upon layers and layers of exchange through dialogue and the acceptance of difference of opinion and interpretation. Al-Azhar’s moderate curricula teaches and encourages the proper understanding of Islam that is far away from extremism. It reflects the true spirit of Islam and the essence of Islamic heritage in both rationality and rhetoric.
Spiritually, al-Azhar embodies Islamic moderation and tolerance, the two fundamental characters of the three monotheistic religions in general…
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Pope Francis, patriarch of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the leading religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world, welcomed delegates at the October 3 opening of the sixth Anglican Global South Conference, esteeming the importance of their gathering.
Pope Francis expressed his “deepest appreciation” for his invitation to this “momentous event”, in remarks read by the Apostolic Nuncio in Egypt, Archbishop Bruno Musaro. Musaro assured delegates of Francis’ prayers as they discuss themes of “high significance” for both the Anglican Communion and the entire Christian community.
“Nothing is lost when we effectively enter into dialogue,” Musaro quoted from Francis’ encouragement to all people of goodwill, “Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer.”
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb’s remarks quoted from the Quran in his welcome to the Anglican delegates, noting how God created different peoples in the world so that they would know each other and build society.
Tayeb’s message was delivered by Sheikh Saeed Amer, chairman of the fatwa committee in Al Azhar. He esteemed the importance of the conference, hoping it would contribute to building increasingly positive Egyptian participation in the Global South.
Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthdox Church also extended his welcome to the delegates of the Anglican Global South. Through Metropolitan Bishoy he expressed his delight in the Christological agreement signed between the Anglican and Oriental Orthodox Churches in 2014, as well as the 2015 agreement on the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father.
“[We] back you in your defense of the commandments of the Holy Scriptures,” said Tawadros to the Global South delegates, through Bishoy, while noting serious disagreements that exist between the Coptic Orthodox and the Anglican Church as a whole.
“Yet we carry on our dialogue with the Anglican Communion in order to encourage the Anglican conservatives to continue abiding to the true and genuine Biblical principles.”
Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, bishop of Egypt and chairman of the Global South steering committee, welcomed the ecumenical and interfaith dignitaries, and thanked them for their participation in the conference opening session.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rev. Justin Welby visited the Anglican All Saints Cathedral in Cairo and opened his sermon with a surprising comparison. Earlier he visited Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyeb, and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II.
“It has been an interesting and useful day,” the archbishop told the packed cathedral of his high profile itinerary, “but worshipping with you is the most important part.
“Here we meet with Jesus Christ and become his witnesses.”
Welby’s visit was to offer condolences for Egypt’s most recent witnesses, the twenty Coptic Christians and one Ghanaian martyred in Libya in February. The word ‘martyr’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘witness.’
Symbolically, Welby delivered to Pope Tawadros twenty-one letters written by grieving British families. One is believed to have been related to David Haines, the aid worker captured in Syria and beheaded last year.
“Why have the martyrs of Libya spoken so powerfully to the world?” Welby asked. “The way these brothers lived and died communicated that their testimony is trustworthy.”
But an unfortunate symbolism coincided his visit with the release of another video from the Islamic State in Libya, this time of Ethiopian Christians. Two groups totaling twenty-eight people were martyred, one beheaded and the other shot in the head.
Welby paid tribute to them, along with others killed for their faith in Kenya and Nigeria.
He noted the certainty of their resurrection, but stated, “We must grieve for them, support their families, and seek to change the circumstances that lead to their deaths.”
Welby’s sermon did not go into specifics, but he has earlier defended military strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, while urging local governments to exercise their mandated use of force to restore order.
And concerning the flood of refugees to the region, “Europe as a whole must stand up and do what is right,” he told the BBC, and share the burden of accepting them.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, over 125,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt. Refuge Egypt, a social service arm of the Anglican Church in Egypt, extends food and medical care to those the UNHCR designates as of particular concern.
Welby praised the Christians of the Middle East for their trustworthy witness. But in order to be communicated, it must be acted out.
“If the church hears the world’s cries for help, but turns its back,” he said, “they will not believe in the love of Christ.”
Visiting with President Sisi, the archbishop heard him emphasize that Egyptian Christians are not a minority, but enjoy their full rights as all other Egyptian citizens.
Visiting with Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib, he heard that love and mercy are the two elements that must characterize both international and human relations, and that the true picture of Islam and Christianity must be presented to the world.
“When a community is full of light,” Welby said in his sermon, “people will see through it and perceive God, and know they are loved by Christ.”
During communion, he sought to demonstrate this. Aware the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic bishops present could not share in full fellowship, Welby went to them and knelt down, asking for a blessing. In response, the two reciprocated and each prayed for the other in turn.
So many are having hard times in this region, Welby said, he wanted to come and offer condolences. Finishing his sermon, hepromised the audience that he was praying for them in the Middle East, but closed with a request of his own, for the West.
“Please pray for us, that in our comfort we do not forget to be faithful witnesses.”
A scant eighty feet from St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Port Said, two small bombs exploded last month. Despite the second detonation being delayed until after a crowd had gathered and police were summoned, no one was killed. Even so, it is one more mark of an insurgency aiming to destabilize Egypt.
‘It is a psychological message that terrorism is near you,’ said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas, the local priest.
Fortunately, despite the hundreds killed in the waves of protest and violence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt has not suffered the horrors witnessed in Syria and Iraq. But throughout the region struggles over political power are mixed with sectarian rhetoric that targets religious minorities.
‘Some people try to stoke the flames of hate,’ said Ghattas of his otherwise idyllic Mediterranean city, ‘to turn them against their Christian neighbour and get them to leave their homes.’
But unlike Syria and Iraq, Egypt has an antidote. It is embryonic in development, but carries promise to resist the regional trends. It is the Egyptian Family House, created by Al-Azhar University and Coptic Orthodox Church to resist the sectarian pull and preserve national unity between Muslims and Christians. Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches are also included.
Egypt’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Pope Shenouda were distraught after the 2010 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, and worried when extremists declared they were coming for Egypt next. In 2011 the Family House received official approval, though the 25 January revolution delayed much of the work of setting it up.
‘National unity’ has long been a rally cry of the Government, which paraded imams and priests in official ceremonies, exchanging hugs and kisses at the highest levels. But on the street ordinary Egyptians would grumble. Neighbourly relations were ample and interreligious friendships not uncommon, but a sectarian spirit was latent in many and easily exploited.
By contrast, the Family House was authorised to extend national unity in two directions. First, it was given authority to interact directly with cabinet ministers to address policies that result in division. Committees were created to tackle religious discourse, educational curriculum, media coverage, and youth affairs, among others.
But second, the Family House has authority to replicate itself in branches throughout the country at the grassroots level. One of the most dynamic early initiatives aims to supply the raw materials in this effort.
January 2012 witnessed the launching of a three-year programme to bring together imams and priests in common cause. Paired off, they live together for three days, four times a year, while as a group of 70 they receive training in dialogue and practical partnership. The programme takes them to historic religious sites, churches, and mosques, which for many represents the first time to step foot in a house of worship of a religion not their own.
The project was run through Al Azhar. Hailed as a bastion of moderate Islamic thought, it aimed to counter sectarian trends in Egypt and coordinated the supply of imams. The Orthodox offered the largest percentage of priests, and each other denomination chose their multiple participants.
Midway through the first year the Family House received sizeable psychological encouragement from the highest levels. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew President Morsi following widespread demonstrations, began publicly speaking of the need to address sectarianism.
‘I pledge to implement mechanisms that will reform religious discourse,’ said Sisi, ‘so that Egyptians don’t witness any more violence.
‘I personally have lived and grown up in a town where problems between Muslims and Christians were nonexistent, but radical extremism has caused division.’
This division was not easily overcome. One Christian participant accused the Muslims of lack of hospitality – a great insult in the Arab world – as he accused them of hoarding welcoming food and drinks intended for the whole group. Some said that a priest would never be welcome in a mosque, nor an imam in a church.
‘It is very hard work,’ said Saleem Wassef, the project director. ‘They can be very hardheaded, as everyone thinks they are right.’
Slowly attitudes began to change. Bishop Yohanna Gulta of the Coptic Catholic church gave an address on the Trinity, demonstrating its essential monotheism. This message was confirmed by a respected Muslim scholar, after which some of the more sceptical imams began to mellow, Wassef said.
Particularly pleased was Fr. Mikhail Thabit, a Coptic Catholic priest in 6 October City outside of Cairo. Before relocating north he served 23 years in Hegaza, 570 kilometres deep in the often sectarian-laden provinces of Upper Egypt.
‘It was a Judas kiss,’ he said of his previous official gatherings with sheikhs, which he described as playacting. But with participants in this exchange he felt a real warmth develop as they joked together.
‘Just because we are different it is not the end of the world,’ he said. ‘Instead, the differences enrich us if we get to know each other.’
Between official meetings, many participants did. For some this involved only the phone calls offered for religious holidays, though the recognition of Christmas and Easter even as social occasions was often a great challenge. But Sheikh Ali Abdel Rahman of Fayoum welcomed Orthodox priest Fr. Mityas to his home to visit his sick wife. For many conservative Muslims female members of the household are strictly off limits to anyone but relatives.
‘God bless all of your work for the sake of our country and our children,’ lectured the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishak, who welcomed the imams and priests to the cathedral for one of the sessions.
‘But it is very important that this reaches the people so that they can see it, be influenced by it, and be changed.’
One of the most revolutionary acts of the group was simply to walk the streets together. Some priests complained when they walk alone some will curse and even spit upon them. But as they strolled the streets of Cairo in a group, onlookers gaped in astonishment, and seeming admiration. At the Coptic Museum a school group ran up to greet the imams and priests together, and demanded a picture.
‘Egyptians love men of religion,’ said Fr. Arsanious Murid, a Coptic Catholic priest in Fayoum, ‘and if they see a priest and an imam together it influences them to work together and overcome fanaticism.
‘These displays of love are like the leaven that spreads through the whole community.’ He hopes a Family House branch will soon be established in his city.
Bishop Mouneer Hanna of the Anglican Church in Egypt urged at the close of the second year of Family House sessions that this would not be the last meeting between participants. Sheikh Muhi al-Din Afifi, head of the Azhar’s Islamic Research Council, asked the same.
And if year one is any indication, it is a developing project. Regional branches of the Family House were created in Alexandria, Ismailia, and Luxor, among others, though many cities have yet to show interest.
One city that did, however, is Port Said. There, Fr. Ghattas was able to directly intervene and prevent a Coptic family from being forced from their home.
A neighborhood scuffle between teenagers led to the hurling of insults and broken arms. The Muslim family’s home was full of knives, while the Christians – after fleeing for a week – called on relatives who brought guns.
But the potentially explosive situation was diffused when Ghattas pressed upon both families in the name of the Family House. The Christian family was primarily at fault, he judged, and led both in the acceptance of a reconciliation sacrifice. Two sheep were slaughtered and peace prevailed.
‘Jesus and Mohamed both call [for us] to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim, Ghattas’ close collaborator in Port Said.
In a region torn by strife and religious intolerance, the Family House has accepted this challenge, to keep this harm from Egypt.
This article was originally published in the 13 December, 2014 print edition of The Tablet, but is currently behind an online paywall. It is reproduced here with permission.
From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of the committee that wrote the constitution. Mohamed Abd al-Salam is a judge and the legal adviser to the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyib. He discussed a number of religious articles briefly, and gave insight into the controversy whether Egypt should have a civil state, a civil governance, or the expression eventually adopted – controversially – a civil government:
The Azhar did play an active role on a different controversial issue, however, that of the identity of the state. Salām stated that some members wanted to define Egypt as a ‘civil state’, but the Azhar, the Nour Party, and other members expressed caution. In their opinion the great majority of Egyptian equate the term ‘civil’ with ‘secular’, and Salām rejected that Egypt was a secular state for Islam was its official religion. But neither is Egypt a religious state – in the sense of the Western, theocratic understanding – nor is it military. In fact, Salām did not oppose the term outright, but preferred to see the idea expressed within the constitutional text, rather than as a description of the state itself.
Again, the Azhar returned to studying the issue, and it was the Grand Mufti, Shawkī ‘Allām, who proposed what would become the compromising solution. In his description, Salām stated both words around which a controversy would develop. Civil ‘governance / government’ was an acceptable substitute for a civil state. He believed the majority opinion in law held that ‘government’ was a more precise word, but that the Azhar had no objection to either phrasing. Some committee members objected, saying that ‘governance’ was the agreed upon terminology. ‘Amr Mūsa, however, announced ‘government’ from the podium – twice – and it was voted upon in consensus, said Salām.
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President Mohamed Morsy’s decision to reinstate the dissolved parliament has set off a firestorm of debate in Egypt. Is Morsy fighting for full democracy against a military regime? Or is he trying to institute a full Islamist takeover of government? Christians worry about the second possibility.
“There are attempts to take control of all state institutions,” said Karam Ghobrial, an activist with the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts, “and the biggest proof is Morsy’s decision to bring back parliament.” Ghobrial is one of many lawyers who filed an injunction against the president’s ruling. Ghobrial’s comments reveal a deep-seated Coptic distrust of Islamists. “There should be international attention from the United Nations to protect minorities,” he said, “because Morsy broke his oath to respect and uphold the law.”
Morsy’s presidency did not start off this way. “We as Egyptians, Muslims and Christians,” he proclaimed in his victory speech…
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