Friday Prayers for Egypt: Crown Prince Visit

Flag Cross Quran


It was a high-profile visit, with high-profile rhetoric. The Saudi crown prince took his first foreign policy travels, spending several days in Egypt.

He spoke of economy. The joint megacity is a future boon.

He spoke of terrorism. Turkey and Qatar need isolation.

He spoke of religion. Copts are beloved and Azhar restored.

He spoke of culture. The opera was visited and is coming to Saudi.

God, these are words to consider. They are words many question. Guide Saudi Arabia between rhetoric and reality. Transform the kingdom to mirror your will.

But God, in this relationship, bless also Egypt.

May the projects respect sovereignty and prosper the nation.

May terrorism subside, no matter its source.

May the religious respect others and hearten the nation.

May culture inspire, no matter its form.

God, give peace between nations, both near and far. Raise the profile of Egypt; may her morals be high.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Rohingya

Flag Cross Quran


The Azhar spoke out about the death and displacement of Muslims from Myanmar. It called on the world’s conscience to care, and the international community to do something about it.

It also asserted—rightly or wrongly—that if they were Jews, Christians, or Buddhists, there would have been action already.

God, some of the images are horrific. Villages burned, children killed. Stop the violence, end the hatred.

Myanmar says the Muslim community are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, appropriating land over many years.

Whatever the truth, God, may problems be solved appropriately.

Perhaps the Azhar is right. Few outside of Southeast Asia pay much attention to the region.

But God, all have blind spots. Many support their own. Hypocrisy is everywhere—none can equitably spread their compassion, none can completely ensure justice.

Except you. Intervene, God. There and everywhere. Motivate your world to join you.

Give wisdom to the Azhar, and the world’s Muslims, in how to compel the cause.

Give wisdom to Myanmar, and the Rohingya’s neighbors, in how to solve their grievances.

And give wisdom to the world, to find the path toward peace.

May mankind care, God. May mankind act.

May religion have little to do with it. May you have much.



Global South (Anglican) Middle East Published Articles

World Religious Leaders Laud the Anglican Global South Conference in Egypt

Credit: Michael Adel, Bridges Cultural Center

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.

Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Five Year Freeze in Vatican-Azhar Relations Could Soon Be Over

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

Amr Saleh
Amr Saleh

Amr Saleh, a 33-year-old lecturer in Islam in English had never met a Christian until he moved to Cairo. He believed monasteries were places of torture and black magic.

Now the respected scholar who is based at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, enthusiastically studies liberation theology.

He also wants to transform the traditional approach to comparative religion.

Saleh’s change of heart was sparked by an unlikely friendship with a French priest. It prepared him for a groundbreaking decision by al-Azhar to allow its students to learn about Christianity in Rome.

‘We should understand people as they want to be understood,’ he told Lapido. ‘To teach Christianity you should start with Christians and learn from their perspective.’

Saleh was the first al-Azhar lecturer to go to Rome for the inaugural Summer School for Christian Sciences at Urbaniana Pontifical University.

Now, after five long years, full-fledged relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar are set to resume ‘very soon.’

Dr Kamal Boraiqa of al-Azhar’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (formed in February 2015) told Lapido new efforts are underway to rebuild ties between the leading institutions of the Christian and Muslim world.

He praised the groundbreaking educational partnership, which graduated the first ever Azhar scholar with a Vatican-certified diploma in Christianity.

Boraiqa described it as a step to ‘pave the way’ to restoring cooperation that had ground to a halt.

In 1998 Pope John Paul II and Grand Imam Mohamed Tantawi created the Joint Committee for Dialogue. In 2000 he became the first ever pontiff to visit al-Azhar.

But relations soured in 2006 when his successor, Pope Benedict, quoted a Byzantine emperor who criticized Islam.

And in January 2011 al-Azhar astounded the world by officially suspending dialogue following the Pope’s call for protection of Middle East Christians after the New Year’s Eve bombing of a church in Alexandria.


A thaw came in 2013 as Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb sent a message of congratulations to newly elected Pope Francis.

Six months later the pope sent a letter expressing his respect for Islam and a desire to build ‘mutual understanding.’

A further boost came in November 2014, when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Vatican and agreed with the Pope to renew dialogue.

It has been mostly quiet since. Boraiqa met with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran of the Joint Committee at high level interfaith meetings in Jordan in 2015, and conveyed to Tayyeb his wish to resume dialogue.

‘It proves we don’t mind our sons studying at the Vatican,’ Boraiqa said. ‘It is a message that we trust you.’

Saleh was the only Egyptian in the group of three Turks and two Chinese in the inaugural class. He said academics were eager to build good relations.

Originally from Fayoum, 100 kilometers south of Cairo, Saleh first came to al-Azhar as a student.

Dominican priest Fr John Jacques Perenes, from France, who was director of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo (IDEO), stumbled upon him struggling through a book on Christianity, and their eventual friendship ‘completely altered’ his outlook.

Now he is the one altering others. Most of his students at al-Azhar are from Indonesia and Malaysia, and never even heard of the Vatican.

The month-long intensive Urbaniana programme includes courses in theology, Old and New Testament, ethics, and church history.

But it also provides students an opportunity to witness the darker side of interfaith relations.

In the northern city of Padua, the authorities passed a law requiring immigrant kebab shops to close earlier than other restaurants, Saleh said. In Rome, he visited a Bangladeshi mosque marked by stark poverty.

But it was his visit to the Jewish ghetto and the stories of Jewish eviction to death camps in Germany that left the strongest impression.

‘I was deeply moved. Look what we can do to each other,’ he said. ‘And this was only a hundred years ago.’


The programme director is one Fr Roberto Cherubini. He told Lapido the school is meant to create a network of relations in the non-Christian world.

‘Often their perceptions are not correct,’ he said. ‘It is important to help them get information from the source.’

Cherubini blamed the media, and described the school as an effort to help Christian minorities by helping the majority religion better understand the Catholic faith.

To do so he interacts with reputed academic institutions. Saleh’s participation had been secured via direct conversation with al-Azhar’s Grand Imam.

Cherubini has requested five Egyptian scholars for next year, with plans to draw also from India and Indonesia.

Boraiqa also blamed the media for misrepresenting Muslims. He has travelled in the West, describing first-hand experience of Muslim stereotyping as potential terrorists.

But in the UK his experiences were better, owing, he said, to its multiculturalism. Once a visiting scholar at Birmingham University, he now joins al-Azhar’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue in official discussions with the Anglican Communion.

Al-Azhar hosted the Bishops of Bradford, Southampton, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary of interreligious affairs, arranged through Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of Egypt. Together they examined how religious texts could be used to justify violence.

‘Extremists take a verse out of context, and use it as a pretext,’ he said. ‘If you clarify issues for religious leaders, they will foster better understanding, promoting respect and cooperation.’

Anglican dialogue will with al-Azhar will resume in the UK in autumn 2016, mirroring a pattern that used to exist with the Vatican.

Meanwhile, all the signs for imminent resumption of relations with the Roman Catholic Church are there, aided by a joint effort to transcend religion with the most basic of human interactions.

‘We are warming the relations that have recently cooled,’ said Saleh. ‘What al-Azhar and the Vatican need is mutual friendship.’

STOP PRESS:  We have just learned today that al-Azhar has approved a scholarship from Urbaniana for Amr Saleh to read for a PhD in Christianity and Comparative Religions.

Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Planting a Tree for Peace Means More than ‘Hugs and Kisses’

(from Michel George)
(from Michel George)

If the Islamic State is uprooting civilization, one response is to plant a tree.

At Palmyra in Syria, religious fanatics took an axe to the witness of generations past.

At Ismailia in Egypt, religious leaders take a shovel to secure a witness for generations future.

And by the banks of the Suez Canal, Egypt’s recently expanded national project, imams and priests both learn and demonstrate a lesson that transcends religion.

‘We want to open their eyes to see how great their country is,’ said Saleem Wassef, ‘not in terms of their Muslim or Christian heritage, but for all of us as citizens.’

Wassef is the coordinator of the ‘Imam-Priest Exchange’, a three year project run by the Egyptian Family House. Each year 35 pairs of Muslim and Christian leaders are brought together in friendship, trained to cooperate in practical expressions of national unity.

The ‘Exchange’ is supported strongly by Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church. Supervised by the head of the Islamic Research Council, Sheikh Muhi al-Din al-Afifi, and a leading figure in the Orthodox Church, Fr. Butros Bastorous, it urges participants to dialogue.

The Family House was created in partnership by the Azhar and Egypt’s Christian denominations shortly after the 2011 revolution, in an effort to preserve good religious relations.

Despite much trauma locally, as the whole region exploded in religious violence, Egypt stayed relatively stable.

Last month, to great celebration, Egypt opened a new waterway in the Suez Canal to permit two-way traffic, decreasing travel time and potentially doubling revenue. Funded entirely by the local investments of businessmen and farmers, Muslims and Christians, it was a moment of pride after four trying years.

(from Michel George)
(from Michel George)


On 1 September the Imam-Priest Exchange followed behind to consecrate the effort.

At the oldest church in Ismailia the imams planted three olive trees. Then at the Young Men’s Muslim Association, priests did the same.

‘It is necessary to bring our people together,’ said Wassef. ‘Planting a tree means love and prosperity, and is sign for the future that you are working for the coming generations.’

In a previous generation under then-President Mubarak, Egypt would often make a great show of national unity. Religious leaders would come together at major events and exchange what became locally known as ‘hugs and kisses’.

But many felt they were only patching over religious tensions. ‘Hugs and kisses’ would often follow an episode of violence.

So the Family House mandate is to diffuse tension and preempt violence in practical projects of great symbolism. Branches have been created in Alexandria, Asyut, and other major cities throughout the country. One of the most active is in Ismailia.

Sheikh Abdel Rahman (R) and Fr. Suriyal
Sheikh Abdel Rahman (R) and Fr. Suriyal

‘The Grand Imam of al-Azhar [Ahmed al-Tayyib] wants us to move from closed meetings out to the streets and the people, walking among them,’ said Sheikh Abdel Rahman Mahmoud, a leading figure in the local branch.

‘When they see so many imams and priests walking together they are amazed; they have not seen this in Egypt or elsewhere.’


Hundreds attended their public lecture. Dozens came up to them on the street, took pictures, and asked how they could participate.

Mahmoud and Fr. Surial Aziz coordinate with other imams and priests to visit up to four local schools a week, demonstrating religious unity. They are even working to open sub-branches in two of Ismailia’s larger neighborhoods.

Ismailia is a success story of the Family House vision, but for Wassef in the Imam-Priest Exchange, the visit is only one step of the process. The next day he took them to a drug rehabilitation center.

A patient gives his testimony of recovery. The director lectured on the spiritual role in healing. Wassef wants each participant to return home, find his religious opposite, and together meet the needs of their shared community.

And the Suez Canal is a reminder.

‘If imams and priests visit our national projects it will inspire their role in society as religious leaders in promoting citizenship,’ Wassef said.

‘They go back to their cities and villages and tell the story of pride in their country. Egypt is serving not only its own people, but the whole world.’

If religious unity holds in Egypt as Iraq and Syria burn, they just might.

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

How the Egyptian Family House Quells Sectarian Tension

Sheikh Hassan and Fr. Kyrillos
Sheikh Hassan and Fr. Kyrillos

This article was first published at Arab West Report.

Port Said is known as a revolutionary city, famed positively for its resistance in the wars with Israel, negatively for the February 2012 massacre of soccer fans during the confusing days of the Arab Spring.

But fortunately, Port Said has never been a sectarian city, said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas of St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, one of eight Coptic Orthodox churches serving an integrated Christian population, among fifteen overall. In the past Port Said was a cosmopolitan mélange of different cultures, and the spirit of coexistence continues to this day.

This heritage makes Port Said a natural home for the Egyptian Family House, witnessed in the warm Easter greetings offered to Bishop Tadros. The governor and top officials from the Azhar, police, and local university spoke of the importance of local relations and congratulated the Christians on the occasion of their feast.

And though Port Said has experienced far less sectarian tension than other parts of Egypt, no city is immune. Ordinary struggles, mixed with family pride and factional attitudes, can poison relations even between neighbors. What is necessary is a system of wise men attuned to sense the early warnings, and to engage in early response.

The Family House was established in 2011 as a joint initiative between the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda. Worried over the sectarian violence witnessed in Iraq, they invited the Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans also to work together to preserve national unity in Egypt.

The Egyptian revolution slowed implementation, but over time committees were formed for this religious body to communicate directly with cabinet ministers. And a mandate was received to create local branches at the grassroots level, so that national unity might come to mean more than just the ‘hugs and kisses’ of top level religious dignitaries, interpreted by many as masking a neighborly but latently sectarian people.

This year marks the third year of one of the Family House’s most dynamic projects. Seventy participants – thirty-five imams and thirty-five priests – live together for three days, four times a year, being trained in dialogue and practical partnership.

Each of the previous two years witnessed an additional seventy, some of whom went on to help establish Family House branches in Alexandria, Luxor, Mallawi, and among others, Port Said.

Fr. Ghattas was one of the participants in the year two training with his colleague Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim. Together they are two of the 27 members of the Port Said central committee, among roughly 100 active participants.

Dayim explained part of their work is to visit together in schools, youth centers, hospitals, and conferences. Some sort of public Family House work takes place on average once a week, he said.

‘Jesus and Mohamed both call to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Dayim. ‘In this we have the responsibility to help quell problems between families.’

A dispute among teenage boys in May 2014 provided a good example. A Christian youth flirted with a Muslim young woman, and her brothers intervened and began insulting him along with the Christian neighbors who had come to his defense. The situation worsened as a fight broke out and one of the Muslims suffered severe bruises and a broken arm. Such a scene is not uncommon in Egypt, when harassment touches family honor. But involving opposite religions, the situation threatened to escalate and both sides filed reports with the police. One of the Christians was arrested and held in jail. Fearful, the Christians fled, vacating their home for a week.

Fr. Ghattas heard of this issue through neighborhood gossip and consulted with Dayim on how to handle it. When he went to visit the families he found the Muslim home full of knives and bladed weapons. The Christians, meanwhile, called for help from a handful of relatives from Asyut in Upper Egypt who came with guns. The family itself had migrated to Port Said around five years earlier.

Fr. Ghattas pressed upon both families the need for a peaceful solution, speaking in the name of the Family House. But he made use of the Family House status as an approved government institution, warning of the influence he would have also with police. Combining religious and civic responsibilities, Fr. Ghattas led both families to agree this was just a problem between youths which spiraled out of control.

He also helped the Christians to accept that they were primarily at fault, having begun the flirting and causing the bodily harm. From their own initiative the family purchased two sheep for roughly $300 – a substantial sum in their poor neighborhood – and gave it to the offended family. The Muslims slaughtered the sheep, placed their hands in the blood, and pressed the mark against the walls. Afterwards some of the meat was distributed to even poorer neighbors. Through this act reconciliation was achieved, the Christian was released from prison, and the families today continue to live in peace.

Such is a practical demonstration of the value and promise of the Family House, but like the initiative as a whole the fruit is still ripening and not yet fully grown.

Reviewing the incident, Dayim emphasized that ideal Muslim reconciliation should not require compensation. Furthermore he recognized that though marking the wall is a common cultural practice, the blood is unclean and should not have been touched.

Fr. Ghattas reflected that it might appear the Christians ‘purchased’ the reconciliation, and though the Muslim elders rebuked their children for the insults, there was no apology for the lesser share of their family’s guilt. Fr. Ghattas believed the Muslims felt they were only slightly at fault, and were doing enough by forgiving the offense and returning to live in neighborly peace. But both sides withdrew their complaints with the police immediately after the reconciliation session, and through several visits afterwards Fr. Ghattas can testify that peace has indeed prevailed.

‘This is what the culture says to do to solve these types of problems,’ said Fr. Ghattas. ‘It is not altogether right, but it is the right solution in this case.’

Much about the Family House seems all right. But privately some imams and priests express less than conciliatory attitudes about the other. Though some cities have witnessed continuing cooperation, others have not yet been able to translate budding relationships into joint work on the streets.

But even where there is success, after three years there will be only 210 religious leaders who have been actively trained in the program. Surely the same spirit exists among hundreds more, but what is this among millions of Egyptians?

‘Sowing the values and morals of citizenship is like a drop in the desert,’ said Lubna Abdel Rahim, a trainer in the program and unit leader in the Ministry of Education, speaking of her ministry’s efforts.

‘But if we cooperate in all our institutions this drop can become a garden.’

Such is the promise of the Family House, still awaiting the nourishment to flower further. Port Said is a worthy place to begin and if the Easter visit is any indication, the effort is well under way.


The Burden of an Azhar Sheikh

Sheikh Saeed and ParentsSheikh Saeed Ibrahim was very keen to see my parents. He canceled an appointment to meet them, making sure the opportunity was not missed before they returned to America.

He wanted this picture taken, and he wants you to see it. He would be very pleased if you share.

“I want the world to see that normal Americans can meet a Muslim leader, and be friends,” he said. “Too many are equating Islam with what they see in ISIS and other extremist groups.

“We have to change this picture.”

I met Ibrahim during training sessions for the Egyptian Family House. He was one of 70 religious leaders – half Muslim, half Christian – learning to be friends with one another and then partner together in their local area to preserve and promote national religious unity.

Ibrahim mentioned it is slow going, and that due to various reasons his overtures to area priests have not yet succeeded.

So he was especially interested to go international.

Not that he has not been active at home. The Azhar is Egypt’s central Muslim institution, perhaps the most influential in the wider Sunni world. Its graduates lead the great majority of the nation’s mosques, and generally control the national religious discourse.

Ibrahim is a supervisor of Azhar preachers in Giza. In addition to this task he delivers a sermon each Friday, offers daily religious lessons, and gives a weekly lecture to police, youth, and women.

In recent months he has been especially active. Following the election of President Sisi the Azhar launched a campaign called Love of Country. Following an international Azhar conference last December to condemn ISIS, it launched Eliminating Violence and Terrorism.

Since then he has spoken in at least an additional 100 area schools, with a three-fold message:

First, Islam does not know terrorism nor call for it because it is a religion of peace and security.

Second, Islam in its doctrine accepts the religious other no matter the religion.

Third, Islam treats all people well and with proper morality.

So while Ibrahim and his colleagues work to spread this message to Egyptians young and old, he holds a special burden to communicate with foreigners.

He wants tourism to return to the country, and he wants the image of Islam to improve. He hopes that as they take pictures together, the world will become more aware.

If any in Egypt read this and take note, I would be happy to introduce you. It would be good to draw in also a Coptic priest, and encourage the Family House in working together.

“We are doing this because of the circumstances our country is going through,” Ibrahim said, “but the reward we receive is from God.”

Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

There is no ‘Nation of the Cross’

Message Signed Blood ‘To the nation of the cross, we are back again.’

So boasted the black-clad narrator of the latest ISIS video, this time chronicling their slaughter of 30 Ethiopian Christians captured in Libya. Two months earlier, the victims were Coptic Christians, whose beheadings came entitled: A message signed with blood to the nation of the cross.

But what is the ‘nation of the cross’?

Some have embraced the terminology. The Christ Church United Methodist of the Woodlands, Texas, posted a Je Suis Charlie inspired message of support: ‘Here am I, I too, am a member of the nation of the cross.’

But Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK thinks they are making a grave mistake.

‘This divisive terminology implies that we as a “nation” of Christians are at war with the “nation of Islam”,’ he wrote to the youth of his church.‘Of course this is not the case, and we must not be coerced into a state of enmity.’

ISIS labeled the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church an ‘enemy’, likely for the ongoing Ethiopian military response against the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia. Likewise, the Coptic Orthodox Church is targeted to a great degree for the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

But ISIS is not just after these churches. ‘Our battle is between faith and blasphemy,’ the narrator declared. ‘We swear to Allah: You will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam.’

In seeing itself as a caliphate, Angaelos told Lapido Media, ISIS wants to put itself at war with Christianity.


‘Because there is a Muslim ummah, there must be in their eyes a Christian ummah, the nation of the cross,’ he said, using the Arabic word that can be translated as ‘nation’.

‘This is why I am very alarmed when people use it naively, because they are buying into a rhetoric that is not ours.’

And according to Muslim scholars, ‘nation of the cross’ is not part of Islamic rhetoric either.

The word ummah is used 62 times in the Qur’an, sometimes referring to ‘peoples’ in general. But over time it becomes more specific to the Muslim community, according to Frederick Denny’s chapter, ‘The meaning of ‘ummah’ in the Qur’an’, in The History of Religions.

Christians and Jews are viewed as an ummah as recipients of divine revelation, but Christians are labeled ahl al-kitab, or ‘people of the book’.

‘This phrase [nation of the cross] is unknown, ISIS has invented it to divide people,’ Muhga Ghalib, dean of Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University told Lapido Media. ‘We have the three religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and we are brothers in humanity.’

The editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website agreed. ‘I cannot really make any reference of “nation of cross” to Islamic heritage, or history, and I’m not sure what the origin is,’ Hazem Malky told Lapido. ‘It looks like something they use in their own literature to serve their needs and ideology.’

But even where the rhetoric turns negative in Islamic history, terms like ahl al-dhimmah or kuffar are employed, to refer either to a protected community paying jizya tax, or to infidels.

ISIS’ video also highlights the fact that Syria’s Christians admit paying the tax, having been brought to the point of submission. Rejecting the nation-state system, ISIS sees the caliphate at war with distinct religious communities with the aim of subjugating them.


Its extremist scholars have made a science out of reviving obscure concepts in Islamic history, like the selling of sex slaves and the burning of captives. These are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims today.

But even a group with traditional animosity against Christians finds the term ‘nation of the cross’ unfamiliar. Hany Nour Eddin, a member of Egypt’s dissolved parliament with the formerly militant al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, told Lapido Media ISIS tries to invoke the Crusades in its effort to pit East against West.

‘ISIS uses the logic of power and jihad in order to create conflict,’ he said. ‘They are trying specifically to recruit the Islamist current to their side, telling them the democratic experiment has failed.’

Bishop Angaelos, on the other hand, interprets it as the recruitment of an enemy.

He says ISIS wants a military response motivated by Christian sentiment. ‘The West must not give in. This ideology must fall, otherwise those killed will be replaced by others,’ he says.

Instead, those motivated by Christian sentiment have a responsibility to exhibit their faith.

After the beheading of the Copts by ISIS, Angelos tweeted #fatherforgive, and it quickly went viral. When BBC and CNN reported it, the popular discourse shifted.

Angaelos is calling for his own redefinition of terms to be taken up more broadly, to prevent the world being sucked into a false dichotomy.

‘When we disengage from this language, we move away from the simplicity of Christian West versus Muslim East, because it’s wrong,’ he said. ‘I find this concept of the Muslim world quite offensive. Do I not have a place? For millions of Christians, this is our world also, plus Baha’is and non-believers beside.’

He adds that ‘the nation of the cross’ does not fit the West in its religious diversity. Coining a phrase foreign to Islam, Christianity, and modern civilization, ISIS is threatening to set the terms.

‘They are killing Muslims not just Christians’ says Angaelos. ‘This ideology considers everything unlike itself an enemy.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

Middle East Published Articles The Tablet

Where Tolerance is at Home

Priests and imams celebrate the second birthday of Fr Kyrillos’ son
Priests and imams celebrate the second birthday of Fr Kyrillos’ son

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.

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CARAVAN: Art as a Path to Grassroots Peace

Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.
Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.

So much is wrong with the Arab world today, it can obscure all that is right. At the heart of both are interfaith relations, and the CARAVAN art exhibition showcases the good while addressing the bad. International in scope, its contributions stretch across continents, touching the famous and simple alike.

“We know much more about the West than the West knows about us,” said award-winning Egyptian actor Khaled el-Nabawi at the Cairo opening on March 4. “But art is sincere and can help us build bridges.”

The event was held at the upscale Westown Hub residential complex, and Nabawi is one of the famous, a group often associated with the arts scene. Prior to Cairo, CARAVAN presented at the acclaimed Eglise Saint-Germain-Des-Pres in Paris, and will travel next to St. Martins-in-the-Field, at the famous Trafalgar Square in London.

But it is the simple who are most affected by strife between the religions. And the arts often bypass them.

CARAVAN began in Cairo in 2009, seeking to promote interreligious peace and build cultural understanding. Nabawi’s words were well-chosen, for this year’s exhibition is entitled The Bridge. 47 premiere and emerging artists, all with connections to the Middle East, designed works specifically to highlight the unity of the peoples of the region – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Arab, and Persian.

“There is no true conflict between religions in their essence,” said Sheikh Abdel Aziz el-Naggar of the Azhar, also appearing at the opening. “It comes from those who use religion for their domestic or international interests.”

Perhaps this is a message readily received by arts aficionados in Europe and upper-class Egypt. But what about the common man, manipulated by forces touching his faith?

“We as a church believe in dialogue,” said Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of the Episcopal Church in Egypt, prior to introducing his Ahzar colleague. “But especially after 9-11, there have been many efforts between men of religion that have not impacted reality as these conflicts continue.”

Something more is needed, and Anis praised CARAVAN specifically.

“We have to be creative so that dialogue reaches the people,” he said. “Paul-Gordon has done this through art, to help build harmony between cultures, and to bring people together.”

Paul-Gordon Chandler is the founder of CARAVAN. An American, he grew up as a minority Christian in mostly Muslim Senegal. He was deeply influenced by the local arts scene, but also disturbed by the tensions between the two faiths.

There has to be a better way, he thought, but it was not until his years as an Episcopal priest in Cairo’s St. John’s Church that a vision began to form. So while he now tours the world highlighting the religious unity represented in Middle East artists, he desires to see something greater take hold.

“In the Middle East the public visibility of things is very important, it gives credibility to endorse at the grassroots,” he said. “It is part of acclimatizing the environment toward positive religious relations.”

High-profile public events make possible the changes at street level. 40 percent of proceeds from art sales will benefit Educate Me, an educational initiative supporting the children of an underprivileged neighborhood in Giza. Last year, $48,000 was given to projects in Egypt and Morocco.

Spin-off projects for CARAVAN are in development in Jordan and Tunisia, and a Maltese-themed initiative will soon tour every nation of the Mediterranean. Middle Eastern art emerges from the region and is taken to the West, but it also returns to spread the message at home.

And lest one think the message of interfaith harmony for the West is only given to like-minded elites, Chandler is also taking The Bridge to rural settings in the United States where misunderstanding of the Arab world is prevalent.

“Art provides a context to address the issues indirectly,” said Chandler. “Art doesn’t stop conflict, but that is not its function. It can’t change events but it can change people.”

And this, for Nabawi, is the hope for CARAVAN and other artistic endeavors in the region. “I am convinced that humanity will prevail,” he said.

“Art is the only thing that can solve what politics breaks.”

This article was originally published at the Anglican diocese website.

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The Egyptian Family House: Fostering Religious Unity

Family House Port Said

From my recent article at the Middle East Institute:

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has not been shy about the need to reform religious discourse and relations. He is concerned about how the image of Islam has been marred by Muslims themselves, and how extremist thought has torn the fabric of Muslim-Christian unity. Visiting the Coptic Orthodox cathedral on Christmas Eve, he told the cheering audience, “We will build Egypt together. We will love each other, so the people can see.”

If these words are to become reality, the president may have a tool in an organization called the Egyptian Family House.

The article then describes the basic structure and activity of the Family House, which is mandated both to advise government ministers and replicate itself at the grassroots level. I have written about this before from Cairo, but here is an excerpt from Alexandria:

But examination of the Alexandria branch, established in December 2012 as one of the first regional chapters, shows that these efforts, while promising, are challenged by the precedent of people of different faiths not often working together.

In Alexandria, the governor provided the Family House with a building and four employees from the public payroll. The approximately 100 members meet once a month and work with deputies from the local ministries of culture, health, and social solidarity to plan how to collaboratively serve disadvantaged populations.

But at the same time, the Alexandria branch has been slow to organize activities. One conference on citizenship was held in the presence of the governor, but attracted an audience of only 150. The branch’s family committee has also conducted two visits to lower income neighborhoods, presenting a positive image of religious unity. But little else has been done. Members are encouraged to travel together to each monthly meeting to display their cooperation publicly, but only around half are doing so, according to Father Boulos Awad, co-head of the branch.

Even within the Family House, the culture of separation and ignorance of the religious other has not been easy to overcome. Awad explained that the members have spent much of their time getting to know each other and learning how to communicate. While many imams and priests in the organization have succeeded in forging friendships—calling each other on holidays, for example—they have reported few examples of practical cooperation.

A non-clerical member of the Alexandria branch added that the deliberate pace of the group’s activities reflects the nature of the members in that they are not pragmatic, fast-acting professionals and have the mentality of religious caution. But he and Awad both agree that the participants have good intentions, and they anticipate greater success in the years to come.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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The Educational Initiative of the Family House

Rasmy Abdel Malak
Rasmy Abdel Malak

Dr. Rasmy Abdel Malak is the head of the educational committee of the Egyptian Family House, an independent institution created by government decree. It is run by the grand sheikh of the Azhar in partnership with the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, involving Egypt’s other Christian denominations as well.

The Family House is authorized to create branches in the governorates, so that the effort to protect and reinforce national unity between Muslims and Christians will be felt at the grassroots. But it is also authorized to interact directly with government ministers, so that their suggestions will be taken into serious consideration in the framework of national policy.

It is in this second capacity Arab West Report met with Dr. Rasmy Abdel Malak Rostom, who describes the work of the educational committee of the Family House in formulating recommendations to the minister of education. The interview was conducted on November 10, 2014, by Jayson Casper and Adel Rizkallah, board member of the Center for Arab-West Understanding.

Please describe the basics of your educational work in the Family House.

The Egyptian Family House was established by a decision by the prime minister in 2012. There are a number of committees, approximately eight or nine, including one for education which I am honored to lead.

It is well known in Egypt, like in any nation of the world, that education forms the person. We have noticed instances of extremism and fanaticism among the students that come from the religious discourse in the mosques. But there are no question marks concerning the churches, it would be very rare to see similar problems.

We have begun to think how we can build up a person from youth. It is very important, from nursery and preschool certain things influence Muslims and Copts to be against each other.

The idea of the Family House is that we are a family, all together. But how can we live together when each one is raised in an incorrect way? We have witnessed this, and in the education committee we are trying to do something about it.

Please click here to read the full text of the interview at Arab West Report.

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The Egyptian Family House: Early Structure and Activity

Heads of the religious discourse committee of the Family House
Heads of the religious discourse committee of the Family House

‘National unity’ has long been a part of Egyptian political discourse. Spun positively, it celebrates the equal contributions of Muslims and Christians as one people in the national fabric. Spun negatively, it is crass propaganda used by the ruling class to demonize Islamists and scare both Copts and international observers into supporting the status quo.

Experienced positively, national unity represents the normal everyday life of Muslim and Christian neighbors interacting with each other as people, with nary a thought of religious differences. Experienced negatively, national unity is little more than the hugs and kisses exchanged by top religious leaders covering over a potent sectarianism that too often lashes out at the religious other.

But until recently, national unity was only an idea, of which the substance or emptiness was determined by the speaker. In Egypt today this is beginning to change; national unity is becoming an institution.

The idea was born following the horrific October 31, 2010 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were killed and threats issued also against Egyptian Copts. The Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib interpreted this al-Qaeda sponsored atrocity within larger efforts he believed were meant to damage the religious unity of the whole region. He proposed to then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda to create an Egyptian antidote called the Bayt al-Eila or ‘Family House’, the necessity of which was further demonstrated following the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria in the first hours of January 1, 2011.

The Egyptian Family House was formally created as an independent national institution by cabinet decree in 2011, but the ongoing instability created by the January 25, 2011 revolution meant that little was initially done to develop it. But from the beginning the Family House was meant not to be a place of religious dialogue, said Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq, the secretary-general, but of dialogue between the common people to strengthen their general relations. They will not discuss the differences of doctrine, nor seek primarily to solve any outbreak of sectarian strife. Rather, it is a comprehensive effort to reduce the causes of such strife, so as to revive the popular slogan of the 1920s national movement against British colonialism: Religion is for God and the nation is for everyone.

This article is based on an interview with Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq and his secretary Muhammad al-Banna, on October 12, 2014. Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.


The Sharia of ISIS and Azhar

Sharia Azhar ISISDoes the so-called Islamic State represent the essence of Islam, or its perversion? The answer supplied often closely aligns with one’s ideology.

But what does ISIS say for itself? Here is testimony gathered by the Guardian on what is taught in the training camps:

Unlike previous incidents of stoning adulterers and crucifixion, throwing people from high buildings [for homosexuality] did not even inspire criticism of sharia in the Middle East because many did not realise it was a sharia penalty in the first place.

But it is the obscurity of the punishment that makes it particularly valuable for Isis. The purpose is not to increase the volume of violence but also to raise eyebrows and trigger questions about such practices, which Isis is more capable of answering than mainstream clerics, who prefer to conceal teachings that propound such punishments.

Many Isis members were eager to emphasise they were impressed by such obscure teachings, and were drawn to the group by the way Isis presents Islam with absolute lucidity.

Similar is the question of whether or not Islam spread by the sword:

We spread our message by proselytisation and sword. Ibn Taymiyyah said ‘the foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that brings victory’. We guide and the sword brings victory.

“If someone opposes the message of the prophet, he faces nothing but the sword. As the prophet spread the message across the Earth, we are doing the same.”

Another member echoed Abu Moussa’s reasoning. “The prophet said: ‘I have been given victory by means of terror.’ As for slaughter, beheading and crucifixion, this is in the Qu’ran and Sunna [oral sayings attributed to prophet Muhammad].

“In the videos we produce, you see the sentence ‘deal with them in a way that strikes fear in those behind them’, and that verse speaks for itself. One more thing: the prophet told the people of Quraish, ‘with slaughter I came to you’.”

The article claims that mainstream clerics prefer not to address these more sordid matters. But here is very thorough counter-tract, called an Open Letter to Baghdadi, with a 24-point refutation of the Islamic State and its practices.

It is signed by Muslim leaders around the world, exposing either the ignorance or agenda of those who rail against ‘moderate Muslims’ for not condemning ISIS. The punishment of throwing from the rooftops is not mentioned, but here is an excerpt from their section on jihad:

The reason behind jihad for Muslims is to fight those who fight them, not to fight anyone who does not fight them, nor to transgress against anyone who has not transgressed against them. God’s words in permitting jihad are: ‘Permission is granted to those who fight because they have been wronged. And God is truly able to help them; those who were expelled from their homes without right, only because they said: “Our Lord is God”. Were it not for God’s causing some people to drive back others, destruction would have befallen the monasteries, and churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which God’s Name is mentioned greatly. Assuredly God will help those who help Him. God is truly Strong, Mighty.’ (Al-Hajj, 22: 39-40).

Thus, jihad is tied to safety, freedom of religion, having been wronged, and eviction from one’s land. These two verses were revealed after the Prophet ﷺ and his companions suffered torture, murder, and persecution for thirteen years at the hands of the idolaters. Hence, there is no such thing as offensive, aggressive jihad just because people have different religions or opinions. This is the position of Abu Hanifa, the Imams Malik and Ahmad and all other scholars including Ibn Taymiyyah, with the exception of some scholars of the Shafi’i school.

And for the benefit of Egypt’s reputation, here is a list of her signatories, many of whom are affiliated with the Azhar:

4. Prof. Salim Abdul-Jalil, Former Undersecretary for da’wah at the Awqaf Ministry, and Professor of Islamic Civilization at Misr University for Science & Technology

5. Sheikh Wahid Abdul-Jawad, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

6. Dr. Mustafa Abdul-Kareem, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

7. Prof. Ibrahim Abdul-Rahim, Professor of Shari’ah, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

8. Prof. Jafar Abdul-Salam, Secretary-General of the League of Islamic Universities

11. HE Prof. Sheikh Shawqi Allam, The Grand Mufti of Egypt

13. Prof. Mohammad Mahmoud Abu-Hashem, Vice-President of Al-Azhar University and member of the Centre for Islamic Research at Al-Azhar Al-Sharif

16. Prof. Mohammad Al-Amir, Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies for Girls, Al-Mansoura University

17. Dr. Majdi Ashour, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

18. Prof. Dr. Abdul-Hai Azab, Dean of the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law, Al-Azhar University

21. Prof. Bakr Zaki Awad, Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Al-Azhar University, Egypt

23. Dr. Sheikh Osama Mahmoud Al-Azhari, Islamic Preacher

35. Dr. Mohammad Abdul Sam’i Budair, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

41. Prof. Jamal Farouq Al-Daqqaq, Professor at Al-Azhar University

44. Prof. Mohammad Nabil Ghanayim, Professor of Shari’ah, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

45. Sheikh Dr. Ali Gomaa, Former Grand Mufti of Egypt

55. HE Prof. Mohammad Al-Hifnawi, Professor of Usul al-Fiqh at the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law at Al-Azhar University, Tanta branch

56. Prof. Sami Hilal, Dean of the College of the Holy Qur’an, Tanta University

57. Prof. Sa’d al-Din Al-Hilali, Head of the Department of Comparative Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University

63. Dr. Khaled Imran, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

71. Sheikh Ahmad Wisam Khadhr, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

72. Sheikh Muhammad Wisam Khadhr, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

74. Sheikh Mohammad Yahya Al-Kittani, Preacher & Imam

76. Sheikh Amr Mohamed Helmi Khaled, Islamic Preacher and Founder and President of the Right Start Global Foundation

81. Prof. Dr. Abdul Hamid Madkour, Professor of Islamic Philosophy, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

83. Prof. Mohammad Mukhtar Al-Mahdi, Professor of Islamic Studies, Al-Azhar University and President of the Shari’ah Society

85. Sheikh Ahmad Mamdouh, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

89. Prof. Mohammad Abdul Samad Muhanna, Advisor to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif

90. Sheikh Mukhtar Muhsen, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

91. Professor Fathi Awad Al-Mulla, Pundit and consultant for the Association of Islamic Universities

96. Mr. Abdul Hadi Al-Qasabi, Grand Sheikh of the Sufi Tariqahs in Egypt

97. Prof. Saif Rajab Qazamil, Professor of Comparative Jurisprudence, Al-Azhar University

99. Sheikh Ashraf Sa’ad, Muslim Scholar

102. Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Sharif, Head of the Association of Sherifs in Egypt

107. Prof. Ismail Abdul-Nabi Shaheen, Vice President Al-Azhar University and Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Islamic Universities

113. Prof. Nabil Al-Smalouti, Professor of Sociology and former Dean of the Department of Humanities, Al-Azhar University

121. Dr. Amr Wardani, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

126. Prof. Zaki Zaidan, Professor of Shari’ah, Faculty of Law, Tanta University

At the time of this writing, Prof. Zaidan is the last of 126 signatories. I am not aware of why it is arranged in this order, but high-ranking Egyptians are listed throughout.

Deeper analysis and further study is needed to either rebut or prove the claim that ISIS is Islam, but these scholars are certain it is far from the religion.


Testing the Salafis

Salafi Madrasa

Who should be allowed to preach in Egypt’s mosques? A recent exam offered by the Ministry of Religious Endowments is accused of seeking a selective answer:

Over the last two months, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments held two such exams. Many of the questions used are known for being disputed by Salafists, most notably those about the ruling of Islam regarding the military salute, standing during the national anthem, women in the judiciary, the concept of the caliphate, the reconstruction of places of worship for non-Muslims, bank profits, women wearing the veil and the establishment of museums for ancient Egyptian and Pharaonic artifacts. Salafists have well-known and radical opinions about all these issues, as they believe that Islam forbids such things. (from al-Monitor)

An issue-specific approach appears to have won the desired results:

The crisis between the Salafists and the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments escalated when 600 Salafist imams took the ministry’s test and only 18 passed. Their disqualification prompted the Salafist Call to demand that the presidency resolve the crisis and support Salafist imams, who supported the road map on June 30, 2013.

Salafis bet on survival when the backed the overthrow of Morsi, and on this account have received their gains. They do not appear to have profited much beside, to this point. Their ultimate fate is still an open question, but it appears this institution is lined up against them. Should it be? One figure from the ministry is critical:

In a phone interview with Al-Monitor, Sheikh Salem Abdul Jalil, the former deputy minister of Religious Endowments, said the crisis is mostly political, as parliamentary elections are approaching in Egypt. The move is intended to ensure that Salafist clerics are kept away from the pulpits where they win popularity. “Salafist groups have always been a problem for the government, just like the Muslim Brotherhood,” he added.


“Unfortunately, both parties have a unilateral message. For instance, the Ministry of Religious Endowments wants the preachers to tell the people that growing a beard is not obligatory, while Salafists want to tell people that having a beard is obligatory. Thus, there are two parties — the first desperately wants to impose its views, and the other is a government party that has no vision and ideology.”

Stay tuned for more wrestling, and if things go sour, potentially for fireworks.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Tidying House

Flag Cross Quran


Egypt is trying to redecorate. But beware the house swept clean if it is left unoccupied.

The police force had long been closed to the Muslim Brotherhood, but the revolution opened the door. This week forty students were expelled, for family ties to Brotherhood members. The state had always been wary of infiltration; after a year in public power, it is now easier to find them.

The Azhar was harder to close off to Islamists; conservative Islam can be similar but is not the same. This week 71 students were expelled, for participation in campus protests. The state is seeking calm and a reformed religious discourse; many in disagreement have self-identified.

Downtown Cairo reflected the ethos of the country. Unregulated but entrepreneurial, numerous street cafés catered to fun loving Egyptian. This week many were shut down, pursuant to the law but surely jeopardizing to livelihoods. One café in particular was targeted for its congregating atheists.

And the undercurrent of society had long been left there, undisturbed. But this week the Azhar conducted a ‘count’ of Egypt’s atheists, while the police raided a bathhouse and arrested alleged homosexuals. Politically, commercially, and morally, the nation is housecleaning.

Perhaps. Some say the problems are so entrenched these are only a minor dusting. Others say it misses structural problems altogether.

But even opponents of the state are looking to tidy. Rumors say the Brotherhood is trying to restructure, while Sinai jihadists split over Islamic State affiliation.

God, wash Egypt of all its stains. Repair what is necessary. Gut what is rotten.

Help the police to be of one vision, to serve the law while serving the people. Protect the expelled from unjust accusation, but uncover also if their intentions were ill.

Help the Azhar to be of pure vision, to serve you while serving society. May it navigate well between justice and peace.

Help the economy to stimulate growth, to serve the investor while serving the client. Protect the tax base, but also those of lesser means.

Help the society to stimulate freedom, to serve human rights while it serves cultural norms. May it navigate well between liberty and taboo.

And help state opponents to weigh well their struggle. May they submit to you while submitting to authority, knowing the sometimes difficult balance.

God, you warn when an evil spirit leaves a dwelling, it can come back with seven far worse than itself. No amount of tidying will do, if you do not inhabit it.

Dwell in Egypt, God, and in her people. Dwell in her government, laws, and institutions. Dwell in her culture and commerce. Dwell in her marginalized, and her opponents.

And transform them all. Redeem them. Make Egypt clean.


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Saad al-Din al-Hilali: An Azhari Rails against Religion in the Constitution

Saad al-Din al-Hilali

From my recentarticle at Arab West Report, continuing a series on the people who wrote the constitution:

Sa’d al-Dīn al-Hilālī is a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Azhar University, where he is acknowledged as an expert in both sharī‘ah and international legal systems. Perhaps for this acumen he was selected as a member of the Committee of Fifty tasked to amend the Egyptian constitution. But he does not know, because he was not one of the three members chosen to represent the Azhar officially as an institution. Instead he was picked in the category of ‘general personalities’, learned of his selection via the television, and has never received an explanation why. He is quite happy not knowing, as he can express his appreciation to God alone.

The Azhar is the premier religious institution in Egypt, perhaps in the Arab world. Many consider it to be a ‘moderate’ body; if so, Hilali is a radical in the opposite direction:

Though Hilālī preferred not to characterize the internal workings behind either the disagreements or consensus, he spoke frankly about how he communicated to his colleagues on the topic of sharī‘ah. Most accepted what will be described below, he said. Some, who prefer to rule the street by claiming they ‘protect’ sharī‘ah, taking advantage of illiterates in doing so, were less pleased.

Article 2, for example, was previously inserted in the constitution only to satisfy these illiterates. They believe such a clause is necessary for them to go to heaven, and all the while they are laughed at by those who exploit them in pursuit of power. What does it mean that Islam is the religion of the state? Nothing. What are the principles of sharī‘ah that must be the main source of legislation? Only the concepts of mercy, justice, and equality, over which no one disagrees. If the United States were to draft sharī‘ah into its constitution, would that make everyone a Muslim? If Egypt were to make Christianity the religion of the state, would he become one? No, these are personal matters between the individual and God, each of whom interprets religion in his own way.

If this sounds like the general understanding of religion in the West, read on:

Fair enough, perhaps, but does not Islam as a religion demand some measure of public enforcement, based on the will of God? Muslims are tasked with the role of ‘commanding right and forbidding wrong’, so what is involved in doing so?

Correct interpretation, Hilālī argued, is that right and wrong are calculated for all, not by the individual, and can be equated well with the principles of sharī‘ah as the constitution states. He listed as examples helping parents and neighbors, working rather than unemployment, and refusing terrorism and killing, and said the rest is to be worked out by the judiciary and the police. As for the famous hadith that instructs the Muslim to correct a wrong with his hand if he is able, with his tongue if he is not, and with his heart as the least requirement of faith, Hilālī accepted it. The hand is the hand of the state, the tongue is the voice of the preachers giving enlightenment, and heart is for everyone else outside of these contexts. In this he is in line with much historic interpretation of sharī‘ah, but not all.

But this is fine, he might say. After all, sharī‘ah is meant for guidance and knowledge. Once its details are sought to be enforced in the public square one Muslim will clash with another over what is allowed and what is forbidden. This is in fact what happened to Egypt, and remains in the current struggle. Europe eventually rid itself of religious authority, he said, and this was Egypt’s trial now. America has achieved this light in its constitution, he believed, but now seeks (through support for the Brotherhood) to deny it to us.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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Kamal Helbawi: Wording Rightly the Constitutional Text

Kamal Helbawi
Kamal Helbawi

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of the Committee of Fifty which wrote the constitution:

Seeking to represent all sectors of Egyptian society, the Egyptian Committee of Fifty to amend the constitution of 2012 was light on political parties. Only four seats were assigned, two for liberals and two for Islamists. This was in contrast to the Committee of One Hundred that wrote the 2012 constitution, which was heavily populated by political figures from the Islamist Freedom and Justice and Nour Parties.

After the fall of Morsi, however, few Islamists remained on the formal political scene. The Nour Party was the most prominent, representing the Salafi trend. One seat went to them, but who could represent the Brotherhood trend, with the Brotherhood boycotting the process? Announced as a representative of the Islamist trend was Kamal Hilbāwī, a former Brotherhood member who resigned in 2012 in protest of the group’s decision to field a candidate for president.

Helbawi was a member of the drafting subcommittee which was responsible to merge all articles into one contiguous text. To do so they changed articles according to language and syntax, but did not hesitate to also adapt the meanings.

But one of the most interesting points of his testimony concerns the negotiations with the Nour Party that resulted in the former Article 219, defining the principles of the sharia, moved in essence into the preamble and made subject to the Supreme Constitutional Court:

But in a compromise agreement the definition of the principles of sharī‘ah was moved to the preamble, with the term of reference being the collected rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court. These are about 4-5 cases, he estimated, involving sharī‘ah interpretation issued by the highest court in the land since 1985. Having a definition makes sense, Hilbāwī believed, for someone might want to know what the principles of sharī‘ah are. These cases were entered into the official transcript of the constitutional proceedings, and the preamble of the constitution has equal weight with its articles, according to Article 227.

But reference to the rulings of the SCC raised the issue of why Article 219 was necessary in the first place, if the court already defined the principles of sharī‘ah. Perhaps the legislature did not adhere adequately to these rulings, but if the legal basis was there, what was the big deal? And in any case, if the language of 219 was in the SCC rulings, does this explain why the Nour Party was satisfied?

Hilbāwī dismissed the criticism by liberals of Article 219 that it would have opened up the entire corpus of sharī‘ah legal history to implementation in legislation or in court rulings. But in referring to the charge of Safwat al-Bayādī, confirmed in his testimony of the response of Sa’d al-Dīn al-Hilālī, that the testimony of Christians might not be given equal weight to Muslims, as was once in Islamic history, Hilbāwī said ‘perhaps’, in recognition of Hilālī’s rejection of 219 and his status as a very good scholar. There are still shaykhs in Egypt, mentioning Abū Islām and Mahmūd Shabān in particular, who advocate very retrograde rulings. But given the firm guarantees on equality present throughout the constitution, Hilbāwī does not expect any sharī‘ah-based impingement on general freedom.

The article also contains a first effort to understand what the religious language of sharia interpretation means. Please click here to read this and the whole article at Arab West Report.

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Mohamed Abd al-Salam: The Azhar on Religion in Egypt’s Constitution

Mohamed Abd al-Salam
Mohamed Abd al-Salam

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.

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Arab West Report.

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Safwat al-Baiady: Negotiating Religion in the Constitutional Committee

Safwat al-Baiady
Safwat al-Baiady

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of Egypt’s constitutional Committee of Fifty. Safwat al-Baiady is the head of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, and lent his experience in how the committee’s religious members came to agreement on contentious articles. Here is his perspective on Article 3, giving Christians and Jews the right to refer to their religious laws in personal affairs and religious organization:

But one part of society that was not represented by the committee, Bayādī stated, were the Baha’īs. He personally argued that Article 3, guaranteeing Christians and Jews the right to govern themselves according to their own religious laws, should be phrased instead for ‘non-Muslims’. This wording won the majority in the ‘fundamentals of the state’ subcommittee on which he served, with ten votes for and only four against – the representatives of the Azhar and the Salafi Nour Party.

But when the subcommittee sent the article to the writing committee, it came back changed. Bayādī said the Azhar’s Muhammad Abd al-Salam, consultant for the Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyib, led the charge against this wording. Bayādī said he was very mad, and told the committee their job was in wording, not to change the meaning of the article and throw the majority outside. They responded they were also members of the full committee and had the right to their own ideas. In the end, Bayādī admitted that perhaps the change was wise, as it would not be good to upset the religious elements in society who look to the Azhar and Salafi scholars. After all, they want people to vote for the constitution.

In the committee, Bayādī said, everyone had to compromise, getting something and leaving something. This is the way to resolve differences, and he described an article the church left behind. Having already received a number of useful articles, which will be described below, Bishop Antonious of the Coptic Catholic Church proposed an article granting approval and independence to the Egyptian Council of Churches. Formed after the revolution, the council had been operating but had no official recognition. Majority approval was easy in the subcommittee, but after submission to the writing committee it was removed. Bayādī said that no one opposed early on because it did not concern them as non-Christians. But upon further deliberation committee members felt they had already received enough attention in the constitution. ‘Amr Mūsa pledged his help to get the president to give his official approval, which pleased Bayādī. But what the president gives he can take away, and if in the constitution it would be harder to revoke.

Baiady also described the battle to remove the old Article 219 interpreting sharia law, as well as the article assigning a specific age of childhood. He gives a grammar lesson in Article 64 on establishing places of worship, and describes the shenanigans over securing ‘appropriate representation’ for Christians in the coming parliament. Here is an excerpt on the fight over the term ‘civil’, and to what it should apply:

The final controversy Bayādī described came at the time of the vote itself. The preamble of the constitution declared Egypt to be a modern democratic state with civil governance. This last phrase – civil governance – was very difficult to achieve, and even Bishop Bula, to Bayādī’s surprise and anger, said he did not care for the word ‘civil’. The Salafīs in chief opposed this designation, and the Grand Mufti found the proper compromise when he supported ‘civil governance’. Everyone clapped, and the matter was over.

Or so it seemed. At the final vote Mūsá read ‘civil government’. Muna Dhū al-Fukkār, who was elected as his assistant, spoke out to correct and help him. But the vote took place and passed. According to the official transcript, of which he showed a copy, Mūsá afterwards stated that he misspoke and meant ‘governance’. But the next day, at a dinner function with the army, they received the official copy of the constitution with the words ‘civil government’. Bishop Antonious especially was very upset, saying the text was changed. Some say it doesn’t matter, Bayādī related, for government can mean the whole system of government and not just the ministers. In any case, he does not want to spoil the whole bouquet because of the insertion of one thorn, but he does believe it was meant to be changed, and not simply a mistake, due to opposition to what the mufti proposed.

For this and more, please click here to read the full report at Arab West Report.