For many months, I have entertained the conceit that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi reads my column. More recently, the conceit is that he reads my mind. Let me explain. Last month, I flew to Rome to participate in the third Catholic-Muslim Forum as a member of the delegation of Muslim scholars and intellectuals. We met with our Catholic colleagues in the forum – 12 theologians and scholars headed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Toulan.
Our delegation was headed by Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the most influential American Muslim scholar, and included the grand mufti of Kosovo, the former grand mufti of Bosnia, the former Algerian minister of higher education, the chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, an Argentinean intellectual and community leader, and scholars from Libya, the UK, Canada and Italy.
The forum is one of the fruits of the Common Word Initiative, launched in 2007 as an open letter to then-Pope Benedict XVI and leaders of all the major Christian denominations. It was composed by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan and signed by 138 Muslim scholars and intellectuals, including the grand muftis of seven countries, ranging from Egypt to Russia.
That Christian minorities in Egypt and the Levant have suffered tremendously is now undeniable
We sought then and now to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue based on “love of God” and “love of neighbor,” commandments that are found in both the Quran and the Bible. The response from Christian leaders was extraordinary, leading to a series of conferences worldwide, including our meeting at the Vatican in Nov. 2008.
That was the first Catholic-Muslim Forum where the concept of a “common word” shared by Muslims and Christians was adopted by Pope Benedict, who greeted the delegates and addressed the final session. It was a decisive moment in Catholic-Muslim relations. We would meet again, three years later in Jordan.
Last month we met in the most difficult of times, amid the atrocities being committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria against all who refuse to acknowledge its false caliph. All of this was little more than a year after supporters of deposed Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi attacked dozens of churches, burning many to the ground and harassing priests and nuns.
For everyone at the forum, it was more important than ever to increase the already active and profound Muslim-Catholic collaboration in educational, charitable and relief efforts worldwide. When we were received by Pope Francis, he encouraged us to intensify this cooperation at the local level.
Our concerns were reflected in the very first point of the communique issued at the end of the three-day forum. The delegates “unanimously condemned acts of terrorism, oppression, violence against innocent persons, persecution, desecration of sacred places and the destruction of cultural heritage… It is never acceptable to use religion to justify such acts or to conflate such acts with religion.”
Al-Azhar and the Vatican
A leading figure in the Vatican told me privately how keen the Church had been to restore formal semi-annual dialogue with Al-Azhar, which was suspended by its grand imam, Sheikh Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, in Jan. 2011. That new year’s eve, the All Saints Coptic Church in Alexandria had been bombed. It had been listed as a suitable target, along with other Egyptian churches, on a well-known salafist-jihadist website, but security was barely present at the time of the bombing.
Pope Benedict called on Egypt and other Arab countries to provide better security for their Christian minorities. Then-Egyptian President Husni Mubarak took great offense, and the Foreign Ministry denounced Pope Benedict’s remarks as interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. A few days later, Tayeb suspended Al-Azhar’s formal relationship with the Vatican, and said the pope’s comments were demeaning to Islam.
That Christian minorities in Egypt and the Levant have suffered tremendously is now undeniable. As such, Pope Benedict’s expression of concern has been borne out by the tragic situation, and Egypt’s Foreign Ministry is now working overtime, and quite successfully, to restore the country’s standing in the world.
There have been positive signs over the past year. Tayeb sent a letter of congratulation to the new pontiff in 2013, and Pope Francis responded with a warm letter of his own. Al-Azhar has also been working on various local initiatives with Christian clergy, including Roman Catholic priests, to improve Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt.
The Vatican official I spoke to privately was aware that I had met Tayeb on a few occasions, and expressed hope that I would encourage these developments. I promised to seek an audience with Tayeb when I returned to Cairo. My promise was not a matter of politeness.
Al-Azhar has condemned salafist-jihadist atrocities, as has the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia and other religious leaders across the Muslim world. However, as an American Muslim I am particularly sensitive to the way these atrocities, committed perversely in the name of Islam, are being exploited by a professional class of Islamophobes. Their cynical accusation that ISIS is Islam is resonating in the West, posing a great danger to European and American Muslim communities.
It is critical that Al-Azhar restore formal relations with the Vatican. Sources close to Sisi have suggested that the restoration of good relations and formal dialogue between the two institutions is of great importance to him, so it will probably happen. Tayeb’s deputy will travel to Rome this month, and it is reasonable to assume that he will announce, once he has entered Vatican City, that Al-Azhar has restored formal relations with the Church and its pontiff.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.