Middle East Published Articles World Watch Monitor

Egypt’s Imams and Priests Confront Sectarianism Together

This article was first published at World Watch Monitor, on Dec. 30, 2015.

Gathered at Cairo’s prestigious Dar al-Mudarra’at military complex in early December, 150 imams and priests heard some of Egypt’s highest religious authorities praise their participation in a three-year programme to deepen religious unity.

“Working together for the sake of Egypt – we are in great need of this slogan,” said Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, in reference to the Imam-Priest Exchange, an initiative of the Egyptian Family House. “But it is also the reality in which we live.”

The Egyptian Family House was created shortly after the 25 January, 2011 revolution against President Mubarak – in partnership between al-Azhar (Sunni Islam’s leading authority), the Coptic Orthodox Church, and Egypt’s Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican denominations. The Imam-Priest Exchange began in February 2013, as popular opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and then-President Mohamed Morsi was coalescing throughout the country.

According to Abdel Rahman Moussa, an advisor to Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyib and speaking on his behalf for al-Azhar, “This scene is what we have dreamed of – a sincere expression of what Egypt is, the Egypt that God has preserved.”

“We were all wondering where Egypt was going,” said Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, whose Anglican church sponsored the training. “But now we celebrate the return of love and the brotherly spirit.”

Each year the Exchange brought together around 70 imams and priests from across the country. Four trainings of three days each had them live and eat together as they were encouraged towards a gradual but escalating partnership.

The themes? “Let us know each other. Let us coexist. Let us cooperate. Let us work together for the good of Egypt.”

Participants not only listened to academic lectures, but also actively toured the country. Egyptian citizens looked on astonished, but proud, taking selfies with imams and priests as they walked hand-in-hand down busy streets.

Their distinguished long robes, caps, and beards added to the gravity of ancient mosques, churches, and monasteries. Together they joined fellow citizens in celebrating the opening of the Suez Canal expansion. They rediscovered a shared heritage while exploring the Coptic, Islamic, and National Egyptian museums. And in the final session they visited practical examples of interfaith development work.

“We want to go where people have done things,” said Saleem Wassef, project manager for the Exchange. “The idea is to help them think out of the box, and consider how they can repeat these experiences back in their own communities.”

Moving from remedy to prevention

Religious leaders from the two different faiths visited each others' places of worship.
Religious leaders from the two different faiths visited each others’ places of worship.

This last marker is an important departure from the previous model of imam-priest cooperation, said Nady Labib, representing the Protestant Churches of Egypt. He criticised the “hugs and kisses” displayed in the media after incidents of sectarian tension, to present an image that “all is fine” between Muslims and Christians.

The Family House has been active in quelling sectarian tension, said Fr. Augustinos Elia, assistant head of the branch in Mallawi. But the focus now is on prevention, not remedy.

“We are removing walls and building bridges,” he said. “A certain extremism still persists in society, and we are working to educate and spread awareness.”

One of the best examples is found in Ismailia, where Sheikh Abdel Rahman and Fr. Surial have visited four schools a week for the past two years. Having never before seen such respect and friendship between an imam and a priest, the girls often cry when they see the two together, they said.

Consider also the work of Sheikh Ahmed and Fr. Boula in Menoufiya, where the “My Church, My Mosque” campaign collected money from Muslims to build a church, and from Christians to build a mosque.

Even in Delga, a community whose church was destroyed following the removal of Morsi from power, Sheikh Fayed and Fr. Ayoub have worked to bring Muslims and Christians together. Medical and sport outreaches have tried to unite the people, with youths brought to Cairo to witness the Family House in action.

Wassef said the local branches of the Family House are one of the best successes of the Imam-Priest Exchange. And those trained have gone on to help establish branches in Port Said, Alexandria, and Luxor.

“At first the participants were afraid to be involved,” he said. “But once they knew about the goals, they were convinced about the need to work together for the benefit of their communities.”

Bishop Armia, assistant general secretary for the Family House, related the story of an imam who told him he used to cross to the other side of the street if he saw a priest coming his way. Now, after spending a year together in the Exchange, he has become friends with a priest from his town.

Sheikh Muhi al-Din al-Afifi related a similar experience. Head of the Islamic Research Academy, as well as the Family House committee for religious discourse, he told those gathered of his first visit to a monastery, where he was pleasantly surprised to see such faith and activity mix for the good of Egypt.

“This project works to change the inherited teachings that have sown hatred among us,” he said. “It is the tip of the spear that confronts all manner of civil strife.”

Sincerity and continuity questioned

But not all participants were totally convinced by the project, with one Sheikh saying there was 'not enough connection between words and actions'.
But not all participants were totally convinced by the project, with one Sheikh saying there was ‘not enough connection between words and actions’.

Not all participants, however, were as convinced. Some grumbled that the “religious other” was present only from obligation. Others complained that there was little contact between them once they left the training.

One leader in one branch confirmed this impression. Only 20 per cent of the roughly 100 members acted from full and sincere conviction, he said. Forty per cent came because they were assigned by their religious institution, and another 40 per cent were active for personal or political gain.

Another issue is that the Family House has not yet been able to win wide national media attention. “We are here, but no one sees us,” said Sheikh Said Shoman, a participant from the Sohag branch, who encouraged much more open mixing of imams and priests in the streets. “The problem is there is not enough connection between words and actions.”

The work is slow going, the branch leader admitted, but he is not discouraged. Their branch has held 10 seminars about national unity, and smaller meetings in youth centres and villages throughout the area. As a leader, he is frequently invited to government and civil society events as a Family House representative. But he considers it natural that cooperation between religious leaders takes time.

“Progress develops as someone first sees you, then later will talk to you, and only later might work with you,” he said. “There is a will to make the Family House work but it still needs more interaction.”

Wassef estimated that around 50 per cent of Exchange imams and priests have been active in pursuing the goals of the training. But if engaging men of religion has been hard work, convincing a sceptical public has been harder.

“Some of my colleagues in the ministry used to laugh at me, and some Christians say I am wasting my time,” he said. “But you meet some people who are ready to change. The progress is slow but sure.”

Bishop Mouneer echoed this long-term perspective, telling Exchange graduates that Egypt deserves their effort to rebuild.

“We must look not to what Egypt can give us, but what we can give Egypt and the future generations,” he said. Adding a word to their slogan, he urged them, “Always, together for the sake of Egypt. This is a beginning, not an end.”

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.


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.”

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.

Middle East Middle East Institute Published Articles

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.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

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.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

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.

Diocese of Egypt (Anglican) Middle East Published Articles

The Egyptian Family House: Muslims and Christians, Holding Hands

Imam-Priest 1

Of all the slogans of the Egyptian revolution, ‘One Hand’ was among the most popular. At various times it was shouted by the thousands to indicate the unity of Muslims and Christians, or the unity of the people and the army, or more recently in the fight against terrorism.

But along this progression the utopian unity of Tahrir Square has faded. It has been challenged by political struggles and sectarian rhetoric, which have at times intermixed.

Perhaps, then, in recognition of the dual truths of religious unity and diversity, Bishop Mouneer Hanna of the Anglican diocese of Egypt opened the final session of the 2014 Imam-Priest Exchange with a different hand analogy.

‘Let us hold hands together,’ he said, ‘for the sake of Egypt.’

The Imam-Priest Exchange is one of the most dynamic projects of the Egyptian Family House, an entity created in 2011 by the Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church. The Protestant and Catholic denominations are also vital participants, and the Anglican Church has taken the lead in training religious leaders in dialogue and practical partnership.

The Family House has a mandate to interact with government ministers through its committee work in education, media, youth, and religious discourse. But it is this latter committee which is actively preparing its second mandate: Taking the message of national unity to the grassroots.

For it is here that the real challenge of terrorism and sectarianism must be fought. No matter the international scope of these issues gripping the region, too many Egyptians are drafted into extremism.

‘This session coincides with a bloody period that Egypt is going through, killing Muslims and Christians together,’ said Sheikh Muhi al-Din Afifi, head of the Azhar’s Islamic Research Center. ‘We must spread a culture of citizenship, love, peace, and coexistence.’

The military aspect of this challenge is important, Bishop Mouneer emphasized. ‘But ideology is more important and this is why we are here today,’ he said.

‘I hope and trust this will not be our last meeting, but the beginning of our mutual work.’

Imam-Priest 2

November 3-5 witnessed the final of four sessions during which 35 imams and 35 priests from throughout the country lived together, attended training seminars, and visited local historical and religious sites. Their dialogue, so to speak, was not the formal discussion of religious doctrines, but rather the exchange of life, rubbing shoulders over meals and jokes.

They repeated the program experienced a year earlier by seventy others, to be repeated again in 2015 with seventy more.

The first session concerned how to get to know each other, followed in the second by how to live together. But as participants grew more comfortable the purposes grew more demanding. Session three was on how to cooperate, and session four on how to work together.

‘I beseech you to have joint work together throughout Egypt,’ said Afifi, ‘not just religious but also medical and developmental.’

It was not easy in the beginning. During the first session the 2013 graduates were brought back to testify of their experiences. Imams and priests demonstrated their newfound friendships, as just a year previously they had not known each other.

However, there remains challenges in these relationships. Some spoke that a priest would never be welcome in a mosque, nor an imam in a church. Some emphasized the glories of their own religion, and some described others as not really wanting to be there in the first place.

‘It is very hard work,’ said Saleem Wassef, the project director and a lay minister in the Anglican Church. ‘But I stress to them we are here to emphasize a culture of “me and you together,” rather than simply “me or you.”’

These grumblings, however, were outnumbered by testimonies of interaction. Fr. Mityas of Fayoum visited Sheikh Ali when his wife fell ill. Fr. Suriyal of Ismailia visited schools and hospitals with Sheikh Abdel Rahman. Fr. Kyrillos of Port Said solved sectarian problems with Sheikh Hassan. And Sheikh Hisham of Mallawi visits coffee shops with various priests of his city, asking people their impressions about men of religion.

These social appearances are to Bishop Mouneer one of the most important outcomes of the meetings.

‘We are not here to listen to lectures and visit locations,’ he told participants, ‘but each one after leaving here must look for the closest imam or priest near to him and make relationships, hold seminars, and walk in the street together.’

Imam-Priest 3

Indeed, as imams and priests left their hotel in Dokki they needed to go about four blocks to a main road where the bus could take them to their next location. Onlookers stopped conversations and turned to watch the unusual spectacle.

Some priests confessed they had all but stopped walking alone in the streets of their cities, being subject to insults and even spitting. But walking together makes a great difference.

‘Egyptians love men of religion,’ said Fr. Arsanious of Beni Suef, ‘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.’

Fr. Arsanious wants to help open a regional branch of the Family House in his area. Fr. Mikhail and Sheikh Emad hope to begin work in the Cairo slum of Kilo Arba wa Nus.

If successful, they will follow in the footsteps of the previous class which opened branches in Alexandria, Luxor, Port Said, Ismailia, and Giza. This is where the real work takes place, outside the conferences, which will prove their lasting value. Will the friendships forged between imams and priests over the course of a year carry over into continued cooperation?

In expectant hope, Wassef trained them how to measure the fruit of their friendship. Are they working together as a team? Have they touched all classes of their local area? Have they incorporated others already at work in civil society? And have they written out a plan to accomplish the above, with deadlines?

‘We are working hard to exchange a culture of hatred with a culture of love,’ said Wassef. ‘This is for the welfare of our country, to change the minds of Muslims and Christians toward one another.

‘The project helps reach unreached places.’

Imam-Priest 4

This article was originally published at the website of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt.