By Michaela Koller
ROME, MARCH 30, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The slaying of six Orthodox Christians leaving a Christmas Eve Mass in Egypt has wounded Christians’ sense of national identity, and interreligious dialogue at official levels needs to filter down to ordinary people.
These are observations made by the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria, Antonios Naguib. Coptic Catholics in Egypt number about 200,000; the majority of Coptic Christians in Egypt are Orthodox. Patriarch Antonios is the leader of the Catholic Copts. He is today celebrating his fourth anniversary in that role.
ZENIT spoke with the 75-year-old patriarch about the situation faced by Catholics in Egypt, and particularly the challenge of a growing Islamic fanaticism.
ZENIT: At the end of February, a delegation from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue made a visit to Cairo. The delegates were received by the Grand Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, (who died suddenly this month of a heart attack). What is the situation of interreligious dialogue in Egypt?
Patriarch Antonios: On Feb. 23 and 24, the Commission of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue came to Cairo to meet with the Commission of El-Azhar. These meetings take place regularly, one year in Rome and one year in Cairo.
This is the official structure of interreligious dialogue between the Vatican and Islam in Egypt.
Other local entities try to reinforce the ties between the Muslims and Christians in the country. The leaders of the religious communities visit one another on the great feasts.
However, we feel the need to intensify these relations, especially to extend them to the base, that is, to ordinary people.
This is the only way to extend acceptance of the other and fraternity, and to oppose fanaticism and extremism.
ZENIT: Commenting on the slaying of Christians in Nag Hammadi during the Copts’ celebration of Christmas, a Muslim said that the killers were not Muslims even if they called themselves Muslims. Moderate Muslims condemned that crime. But what is the perception of Copts? Do they see this as an isolated incident or do they fear an increasingly hostile climate?
Patriarch Antonios: I am happy to hear this evaluation by a Muslim. It’s true that moderate Muslims have condemned the crime.
There are many Muslim writers that have written very good, objective articles. They have asked that the true causes of fanaticism and extremism, especially the educational, cultural and religious causes, be attacked.
In regard to the Copts, this crime was a hard blow that has wounded their sense of belonging to the country and of fraternity.
Many consider it a confessional act. But the wisest see in this result an ensemble of factors that engender and fuel fanaticism, the same factors mentioned by the wise Muslim thinkers.
ZENIT: There is talk of the construction of a new church in the center of Cairo. Are there obstacles for the construction of this church?
Patriarch Antonios: There is no law that prohibits the construction of a church. But there are procedures and requirements. Responses to requests for construction take a long time.
There is a unified draft law for the construction of places of worship. It has been presented in Parliament and will be studied.
ZENIT: Will you take part in the special synod for the Middle East? If so, what will be your message in the synod?
Patriarch Antonios: All the bishops of the Middle East will participate in the special synod.
The theme of the synod suggests its principal message: witness and communion.
Our first mission in our countries is carried out through the witness of life, among ourselves and with our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters.
And for our witness to be authentic and credible, it must flow from a life of communion, in every Catholic church and between the different Catholic Churches.
We must also find ways of living and reinforcing this communion with the other Christian Churches and with our fellow Muslim and Jewish citizens.
ZENIT: The number of [Muslim] women wearing the veil has increased a lot over the last 20 years. Is this a sign of social evolution in which we should see the establishment of a fundamentalist system? What do you think are the causes of this evolution?
Patriarch Antonios: Your observation is exact. At present there are very few Muslim women who do not wear the veil. The niqab [the veil that covers the whole face except for the eyes] is also frequently used.
I believe this evolution is the result of the influence of Wahhabite Islam in the country. The phenomenon began with the residence of Egyptian workers in the Gulf countries, and it spread rapidly, became reinforced and generalized.
It has become a social phenomenon, which imposes itself also in more moderate and open families. But the fact also indicates an increase of fanaticism.
ZENIT: What is the situation of the Christian media in Arabic? Are there also Christian films?
Patriarch Antonios: In Egypt, there are several Christian Arabic-language media. There are some magazines and newspapers belonging to different Churches.
Lebanon was the only country of the Middle East that had Christian broadcasting radio stations. Tele Lumiere also launched a television channel, Noursat, which is being increasingly developed.
At present there are several television channels in Arabic. The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt has three.
This Church has initiated a series of religious films that are very successful among Coptic Christians.
[Translation by ZENIT]