The Family House at the Ministry of Youth

Pope Tawadros presenting Minister of Youth Khalid Abdel Aziz with a commemorative gift, quoting Isaiah 19:25 in Coptic, Arabic, and English.
Pope Tawadros presenting Minister of Youth Khalid Abdel Aziz with a commemorative gift, quoting Isaiah 19:25 in Coptic, Arabic, and English.

In a sign of cooperation between the government and Egypt’s religious institutions, the Ministry of Youth and Sports hosted Pope Tawadros of the Coptic Orthodox Church, representing the Egyptian Family House.

The Family House is a partnership institution between the Azhar and Egypt’s Christian denominations. It is tasked to promote and preserve national unity, at both the governmental and grassroots levels.

On July 27 Minister of Youth Khalid Abdel Aziz welcomed Tawadros in an event organized by the youth committee of the Family House. The title of the conference was The Role of Youth in Building Egypt’s Future.

Central to Tawadros’ message was that education is the key to change in society.

Participating also in panel discussion were Gamal al-Shaer, head of the Radio and Television Institute, Gamal Shaqara, professor of modern history and the head of the Middle East Research Center, Musad Aweis, head of the youth committee of the Egyptian Family House, and Aida Nassif, professor of philosophy at Cairo University and Aweis’ assistant leader in the youth committee.

They discussed the economy, confronting terrorism with culture and thought, as well as social and spiritual development.

Minister Abdel Aziz referred to Tawadros’ statement from August 2013 that a nation without churches is better than churches without a nation. This put an end, he said, to the sectarian problem Egypt was suffering at the time.

Dozens of churches throughout Egypt were burned following the removal of President Morsi and the dispersal of pro-Morsi protest sites. Some were trying to sow the seeds of division, the minister said, but to their surprise the opposite was proven.

Tawadros was asked how the church overcame the divisions of 2013. He said the one who knows love, understands life. So the one who knows the love of Egypt understands Egypt, and the church has been a national institution since the first century, which always puts the interests of the nation as first priority.

He praised the 14 centuries of relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, saying it could not be described on paper but is tasted in everyday life.

Muslims and Christians together are responsible for the protection of the nation, Tawadros emphasized. The fingers of a hand differ in shape and size, but they work together for the good of the person. This is a lesson, he said, in accepting differences and pluralism.

The event at the ministry was part of stage two of a Family House program to prepare youth leaders from the different governorates who can spread the ideas of national unity, building bridges of communication and dialogue between the sons of the nation.

Five regional meetings to be held in Alexandria, North Sinai, Luxor, Fayoum, and Cairo will contribute to this effort.

Tawadros Youth Lecture Hall

Information and pictures courtesy of the Facebook page of the Coptic Orthodox Church Spokesman.

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Family House Committee Work

Family House Committees

The Egyptian Family House is an institution created to preserve and promote religious unity between the nation’s Muslims and Christians. Its mandate includes both advising the government on proper policy and encouraging the grassroots by multiplying branches throughout the country.

I have written previously on its general structure. Recently with Arab West Report I had the opportunity to publish summaries of its committee work, which I will excerpt below. Please click on the link in each section to read the full article.

The Family Culture Committee (from AWR):

But it was the work of the family culture committee in the governorates that was most impressive. Ghālib was meeting with representatives of the family culture committees from the various cities which have created Family House branches.

In only three months, five regional branches had conducted four seminars each. The majority of these were not in the larger population areas, but in the villages, even in open squares. They were giving their reports, telling also of at least two incidents of sectarian conflict in Mallawi and Luxor where committee members were able to recruit Family House affiliated religious leaders to reconcile feuding families. There were also more mundane examples where peace was achieved within single families—parents with children, husband with wife.

The Emergency Committee (from the same article):

It consists of five Muslims, all associated with the Azhar, and five Christians, two from the Orthodox Church and one each from the Anglicans, Catholics, and Protestants. Two of these Christians are retired policemen, able to help facilitate relations with security when trouble arises. Azhar members, meanwhile, ensure religious institution cooperation.

The committee activates when trouble arises, and Jirjis and his team have intervened to quell sectarian conflicts in Aswan, Minya, Mallawi, Deir Mawas, Hurghada, and Jabl al-Tayr. Details of the work can be sensitive and are often to be off the record. But by engaging trusted people the committee is able to research the true report of what took place, from which they can issue recommendations. At times, though, a security solution takes priority.

Sometimes the dispute involves conversion from one religion to another. Other times it is over church building. In all cases the committee goes to the source. Have official conversion papers been issued by the Azhar? Has security given written license to the church? Media reporting can often give conflicting opinions, but engaged with officials at the highest levels, the committee is usually able to make a sound determination.

The Media Committee (from AWR):

These values are promoted by the Family House in a general way, and having priests and sheikhs work together is important. But what relation does this have with the media committee?

Our committee must shine the light on this work. If we do this, it will become a pattern for other media to follow. What we are waiting for is it to be stimulated.

What about the website? It is laid out well but seems underdeveloped.

It is still experimental. We want to use it to cover events, but actual accomplishments are not yet that many. The website is somewhat empty, and I have an appointment with Dr. Matanī to select two from our media center [of the church] to work on it. But centralized organizations can be slow.

In our media center we have press releases and our website is active because it has someone dedicated to it. The Family House media committee could stand also to be decentralized a bit. But first we must meet, then take a decision, and so on.

Dr. Matanī and I must press on the other committees to be active and give us the news of what they do.

What will you do when you begin to receive reports?

My idea is that in highlighting the positive values we want society to see, we do more than just put it on the website. We should make something professional and then give it directly to media outlets and satellite channels. But it is clear the financial resources are not yet allocated sufficiently for something like this.

The Education Committee (from AWR)

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.

The first problem is that there are no teachers of religious education, whether Muslim or Christian. The teacher of Islamic religion is often the Arabic teacher. And the teacher of Christian religion, almost anyone can become a school employee no matter their weak qualifications.

So the problem is that they teach religion, but not religious education?

As you said, the subject is religious education, and it should be education, but most of it is just religion. There is no prepared cadre of religious education teachers in the ministry. We are asking the Ministry of Education to create such teachers, both Muslim and Christian.

And the religious classes should remain separate?

Yes, even though there is a wide shared space. I was responsible for the national standards in education committee for the cabinet as concerns religious education, and we sat with the committee in the ministry responsible for Islamic education. We discussed concentrating on our shared items and put aside areas of difference like doctrine. But concerning things like relationships, civilization, and contemporary issues like cloning, for example, let us find the common ground in the two religions.

Values are also shared around the world, even in places that do not have religion. Security, cleanliness, order – these are represented in verses from both the Quran and the Bible.

So do you want to substitute doctrine and in its place put values within the religious education curriculum?

Religious education should teach the spirit of Islam to Muslims and the spirit of Christianity to Christians. The goal is to give the right practices in life. How do you interact with the other? How do you interact with someone who is different than you? This is the educational component we are looking for, from within religion.

We are a religious country, whether Muslims or Christians, and it was this way from the age of the Pharaohs. We live, we eat, we die, and we will be held accountable. This is a constitutional part of the Egyptian character, for us to fear God. Even the thief, before he steals, will say, ‘God protect me.’ From deep within us, religion is important.

So we cannot remove the essence of religion from the schools. Not everyone will go to mosque or the church. We have to take the opportunity in schools to teach it. But the new idea, and it has actually happened, is to have a new book simply entitled, ‘Values’. It takes the common values from Islam and Christianity and teaches them to everyone, in the same classroom.

So this is a new book for a new course? Where will it be taught?

It is a course titled ‘Values’ for all class levels. It will not be tested, but will be taught during activities, such as when the school takes a special excursion to camp, or have a seminar, for example. We have prepared it for the elementary, and will complete it for the other levels. It has been approved by the pope, the grand sheikh of the Azhar, and the minister of education, who have all written introductions. I believe it will be used starting next year.

This, then, will be offered alongside the regular religious education classes?

The regular religious education books will continue to be used, but we are taking these books – along with the Arabic and social studies books – and will try to remove those elements which injure or harm the religious other.

In the days when Fathī Sarūr was the minister of education, there was an elementary book issued and its first lesson was, ‘I am a Muslim’. So what of the Christian student? The minister became aware and had it removed, but things of this manner remain. Things that call Copts ‘infidels’, for example.

This exists in the curriculum?

It was. But this is present in verses of the Qur’an. So if it is included for memorization in the Arabic class, the Coptic student will be harmed. Our committee is taking all the curriculum books to study them, but the ministry has also begun to study this to make sure they are removed. Last year we witnessed this, but we are continuing our review.

As a committee we can only issue recommendations, but there is a response from the ministry. There is a very good relationship between us.

Please click on the links above for the full articles, at Arab West Report.

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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.