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Francis of Arabia: Will UAE’s Warm Welcome Help Christians Feel More at Home?

Pope Francis UAE
(Pope Francis arrives at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi for Mass. Victor Besa / The National)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on Feb. 6, 2019.

Pope Francis must love creating cognitive dissonance.

This week, he became the first Catholic pontiff to ever visit the Arabian Peninsula, the heart of Islam, where conversion to Christianity is illegal. Francis lauded his hosts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), saying they “strive to be a model for coexistence.”

The Gulf nation’s crown prince received him with a 21-gun salute. Francis then railed against the “miserable crudeness” of war.

Human rights groups pressed him to address migrant worker issues. Francis rejoiced in “a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonize ever more, in order to make a symphony.”

The mere existence of a Christian community to visit in the Gulf states may surprise many. In 2015, CT visited the Emirates and reported on its “thriving” church, populated by more than a million Christians—primarily economic migrants from Asian nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Pew Research Center counts them as 13 percent of the population. They worship in over 40 churches, served by over 700 Christian ministries.

And in a region where the Vatican cited a decline of Christians from 20 percent to 4 percent of the Middle East population in the last 100 years, the Emirati government provided a day off and 1,000 buses to bring Catholics to mass.

Attendance reached 135,000, billed as the largest Christian gathering ever held in the Arabian Peninsula.

If the pope does enjoy sparking controversy, he succeeded also among local evangelical leaders…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events Religion

Pope Francis, Islam, and Peace-Building

This interview was first published at Informed Comment.

Kamal Boraiqa
Dr. Kamal Boraiqa

Dr. Kamal Boraiqa is a lecturer at al-Azhar University and a member of al-Azhar Center for Dialogue, the al-Azhar Observer for Combating Extremism, and the Egyptian Family House. With a PhD from al-Azhar in Islamic Studies, he has served as an imam at the Santa Rosa Islamic Center in the United States and as a visiting scholar at the UK’s Birmingham University Center for the Study of Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations, and is a member of the African Union steering committee to link policy makers and religious leaders.

 

Dr. Kamal, as an al-Azhar scholar, what aspects of Pope Francis’ visit and speech resonated with you the most, especially in terms of your responsibilities in dialogue?

The meeting itself was a message to the whole world that the three heavenly religions – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – are against violence, fanaticism, and radicalism. One who contemplates the speeches of Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib will learn many lessons.

First, that faith is incompatible with violence, for violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression. Religious leaders are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the “absolutizing” of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute. We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God. Holy is his name, he is the God of peace.

Religion, however, is not meant only to unmask evil. It has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, today perhaps more than ever. This is done through teaching the younger generations, because education becomes wisdom if it draws out of men and women the very best of themselves, in contact with the One who transcends them and with the world around them, fostering a sense of identity that is open and not self-enclosed.

Sincere dialogue is the only alternative to civilized encounter, lest we are left with the incivility of conflict. Wisdom seeks out the other, overcoming the temptation to rigidity and closed-mindedness. It is open and in motion, at once humble and inquisitive. It values the past and sets it in communication with the present, within suitable hermeneutics.

Pope Francis demonstrated this when opened his speech with “As-Salaam Alaikum.” This traditional Muslim greeting in Arabic means, “Peace be upon you,” and reflects his great respect and appreciation of the Muslim faith.

But he followed up also with a practical call. He said that in order to prevent conflicts and build peace, it is essential that we spare no effort in eliminating situations of poverty and exploitation where extremism more easily takes root. He also spoke forcefully about blocking the flow of money and weapons to those who provoke violence.

 

How does al-Azhar contribute to the fight against radicalism?

Al-Azhar’s strategy to combat radicalism is both local and international. Its system of education is built upon layers and layers of exchange through dialogue and the acceptance of difference of opinion and interpretation. Al-Azhar’s moderate curricula teaches and encourages the proper understanding of Islam that is far away from extremism. It reflects the true spirit of Islam and the essence of Islamic heritage in both rationality and rhetoric.

Spiritually, al-Azhar embodies Islamic moderation and tolerance, the two fundamental characters of the three monotheistic religions in general…

Please click here to read the full interview at Informed Comment.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Pope

Flag Cross Quran

God,

The pope is here. Of course, Egypt already has a pope. But this one is different.

To most Egyptian Christians he is not. In the ancient world Rome and Alexandria were equals. But since then the Tiber has far eclipsed the Nile.

God, to you your church is one. Give humility to one and all, a spirit of brotherhood between servants of servants.

For joining them also is the heir of Constantinople. As the visible symbols of Christianity convene, fix their eyes on you the invisible. Give them wisdom for leading their flock. Give them encouragement for the small portion here.

Middle East Christians are under pressure, God. Evil men target them for death. Seductive dreams target them for immigration. Guide each one individually in the path you desire. But guide them together toward local flourishing.

For the sake of your name, God. For the sake of their peoples.

For with the three symbols is a powerful fourth. The Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar unites most of the world’s Muslims. He is the host, and their partner in peace.

May it be so, God. Certain forces wish to pit one religion against the other.

Some say it comes from texts. Some say it comes from power. Some say it comes from the devil.

Regardless, they say it should not be.

Strengthen their voice and witness, God. Unite them in purpose and friendship. May those who follow them follow their example. And with them, all peoples and nations beside.

For it is the state, God, with power to implement. Guide all who bear your sword, to wield it rightly.

And through men like these four, but only in accordance with your spirit and truth, may they hear from you.

The pope is here, God. May your peace come with him. May things thereafter be different.

Amen.

 

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Current Events

World Religious Leaders Laud the Anglican Global South Conference in Egypt

global-south-azhar-welcome
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.

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Religion

The Pope, in Maadi

Pope Tawadros at St. Mark's Church in Maadi, Cairo
Pope Tawadros at St. Mark’s Church in Maadi, Cairo

Friends in Philadelphia will soon have the privilege of a papal visit. But will Pope Francis preach in your particular church?

His equal in the faith visited us in Maadi.

A Catholic might not consider it so. A Protestant might insist we are all equal. But for Orthodox Christians, Pope Tawadros is patriarch of one of the five ancient sees of the church, in which Rome and Alexandria are equals.

“To advance in the church,” he said, “is not done in the ways of the world. It is to lower yourself beneath the feet of others.”

By holding to equality with Rome, or in serving as a patriarch at all, does the head of the Coptic Orthodox violate his own teaching? His sermon on Wednesday was on the topic of humility. His visit on Wednesday—perhaps—is evidence of it.

Pope Tawadros’ predecessor Pope Shenouda was beloved of the people. Charismatic and witty, his Wednesday sermon at the papal cathedral characterized this bond. To a full house that treated him like a superstar, he took questions from the audience and left them laughing, rebuked, and inspired.

Pope Tawadros is respected as an organized administrator and heady thinker. He is young in his position, but does not seem to have the same level of charisma nor to have won the same level of enthusiasm. Few could.

He initially tried to follow in Shenouda’s footsteps, but when I attended a few weeks ago the hall was only half-full. Furthermore, he replaced the question-and-answer period with the traditional evening prayer. He does have a call-in show on Coptic satellite television, but I have heard Copts complain that this medium is out of reach to many simple believers. Rich and poor alike, all loved Pope Shenouda.

The Coptic Cathedral is now under repair, and Pope Tawadros suspended the Wednesday service. Before this, however, it was interrupted by petitioners seeking resolution for their divorce cases. Speculation wonders if the two are connected, or if the pope feels weighed down by the burden of comparison.

There is no answer that can weigh the motivations of his heart. But the visit to Maadi reflects a new evolution of the Wednesday tradition. Rather than sitting centrally in the cathedral, he will visit his flock.

A full church for the papal visit“To be humble does not mean you are less than others or to deny your gifts, talents, or abilities,” Tawadros said. “It is liberation from the power of the self.”

In order to stay humble Tawadros recommended a checklist of characteristics the Christian should continually review. Never elevate your opinion of yourself, but lower it. Be thankful, and search for the good in all things. Remember the final judgment, and constantly repeat, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Tawadros’ advice centered on the creation of a humble spirit, but two other attributes are necessary, he said. The Christian should also cultivate an open mind and a wide heart. Together these three make it possible to live well and navigate the challenges of life.

After the sermon St. Mark’s Church demonstrated fidelity to Tawadros’ predilection for organized administration, in the form of crowd control. Young people from the scouts program lined the aisles and hallways, channeling all in attendance into a single line to meet the pope. There, he further demonstrated humility as near an hour transpired for each one to receive from his hand a commemorative picture of the occasion.

Commemorative photo taken in front of St. Mark's Church
Commemorative photo taken in front of St. Mark’s Church

Meanwhile, I chafed. My seat was in the very back row of the balcony. The best seats were already taken, so I judged the next best viewpoint would be to scan the whole assembly. Had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for choosing so lowly a place.

I have had the opportunity to meet Pope Tawadros, briefly. But at the end of a long evening I just wanted to get home. I was quite happy to skip the line and again, had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for my patience in waiting to leave and allowing others to go ahead.

But patience wears thin. I could see below that the pope was receiving the crowd. What I could not see was the organization. The scouts in the balcony were not letting us go anywhere, and I didn’t know why. Just let us exit, I thought, and as others get in line below, I’ll slip out a side door.

A few fought their way past the scouts, and the balcony crowd started getting restless. We were told many times to sit and wait, but no one was explaining anything.

That might be a mark of deficient organization, as communication is a must. But my entire perspective changed once allowed down the balcony steps. Very efficiently, at each turn in the path stood the scouts. Smoothly and quickly we were ushered to Pope Tawadros.

As it turns out there was no opportunity to leave by another path. I took the picture from the pope, then a mug from the bishop. Just like that, and I was outside. Five minutes later I was home.

It could be said the entire evening was public relations. Rather than continuing in the pattern set by his popular predecessor, Tawadros sets his own terms. He will visit the churches in carefully controlled settings. He will deliver a sermon and distribute memorabilia. Copts love their religious leaders. He will create a desire in each church to receive a future visit.

Invitation distributed to selected parishioners of St. Mark's Church, following an open sign-up
Invitation distributed to selected parishioners of St. Mark’s Church, following an open sign-up

If it is public relations, is it only PR? And is it wrong? Tawadros blessed the Copts of St. Mark. He both encouraged and demonstrated a humble spirit. He has the open mind to create a new pattern for Wednesday sermons, and the wide heart to check directly in on local congregations.

He has a hard job. If he lacks the charisma that is comfortable with the spotlight, he knows he cannot remove himself from it. Instead he will subject himself even to the scouts of the church.

Only God knows his heart, but God has so far chosen to elevate him to leadership of an ancient see. Many scoundrels have held similar posts in the past, so there is no guarantee. Let both Catholic and Protestant nod heads in sad memory of flawed saints and rank sinners.

Let them both also hold out hope and prayer for Pope Tawadros, to live and lead worthy of his calling.

“I must decrease, he must increase,” Tawadros quoted John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus. Standing long in the apostolic line of Alexandria, may the 118th successor of St. Mark do the same.