By Edward Pentin

ROME, MARCH 3, 2011 ( Around this time of year, the Sant'Egidio lay community in Rome brings together Christian and Muslim scholars and religious and political leaders for a one-day conference on the Middle East.

Each one sheds light on the troubled region and offers hope, but this year's event, which took place Feb. 23, was especially hopeful and timely in light of the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.

Many speakers expressed their aspirations that the regime changes that have taken place -- with further ones probable -- offer a chance for the region to embrace religious freedom and democracy, although they didn't ignore the risks of extremists hijacking the levers of power.

Italy's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Franco Frattini, opened the conference by advocating more European Union funds be spent on dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the region -- "money that should be spent, and would be well spent." He noted that an opportunity exists for those countries going through a transition to democracy to include principles of religious freedom in any new constitutions. This can only happen, he said, if it comes from the people, "not dictated to by Brussels or Rome," and that one of the added benefits would be to arrest Christian emigration from the region.

Cardinal Antonios Naguib, the Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, said Christians and Muslims have "spiritual roots in common that are a bridge for union and fruitful ground for encounter and cooperation." He stressed that the vocation of the Church is service, and each member is called to witness to this in their lives, "without syncretism nor relativism but with humility, respect, truthfulness and love."

Despite the different notions the religions have about man, his rights and freedom, he said "we must embark on the same path and find together clear cut foundations for common action, for the well being of our societies and our countries."

"Human rights are common ground we share," he added, and called on Christians and Muslims to "work together in order to prepare the new dawn in the Middle East" supported by prayer, understanding and by the love of brothers and sisters throughout the world.

Taking a realistic but also hopeful view of the situation was Mohammed Sammark, a Sunni Muslim scholar and co-secretary general of the National Committee for Muslim-Christian dialogue in Lebanon. Focusing on the question of the role Christians can play in the changing Middle East, he noted that Christians, who have suffered much under autocratic regimes in the region in the past, may be facing a brighter future, but it depended on the "critical question" of whether political freedom and religious freedom go together.

At the moment, he said there was too much uncertainty, especially over how new governments will deal with regional realities as well as issues such as religious freedom. But Sammark drew comfort from the fact that the uprisings were not characterized by religious slogans, or even anti-American, anti-imperialist or anti-zionist chants. "The slogans were strictly about freedom, democracy, dignity, transparency, anti-corruption, the rule of law and rule by law -- slogans directly related to human rights and human values," he said. "This is the significance of the change taking place in the Middle East."

However, he said that didn't mean Islamists "won't try to jump into the driving seat" and twist the ideals of the protesters, nor does it mean the changes will be smooth. He compared the upheavals to a "tremendous political and social earthquake." And like such acts of nature, he said to expect some aftershocks before matters return to normality.

"Our hope is to see these upheavals or revolutions settle down on the basis of acknowledging national identity and respecting the full rights of citizenship," he said, before concluding: "There will be no Middle East without Christians and Muslims completing each other, building the same civilization and having the same national identity."

Shedding some light on a possible way forward, Tarek Mitri, a Greek Orthodox professor at the American University in Beirut, stressed that in the context of Christian-Muslim relations, it would be essential that democracy and human rights be "intimately related to citizenship and to the rule of law."

"Human rights including religious freedom should not be implemented selectively nor instrumentalized in the context of external domination or used by a group of people against the other," he warned. "It is crucial to affirm their indivisibility, to reconcile individual rights with those of communities because genuine citizenship cannot finally coexist with political homogenization of communities." Mitri, a former Minister for Culture in Lebanon, stressed that political plurality within communities promotes citizenship, but it can only be achieved by political leaders who lead rather than dominate, and who "promote civic politics."

Two speakers who were present in Tahrir Square during the overthrow of the Mubarak regime offered some encouraging and vivid eye-witness reports of the uprising. Mohammed Esslimani, professor of Sunni Muslim theology in Saudi Arabia, read from his diary of that time, saying that some of the things he saw he never witnessed before in the Arab world, namely how all religions, political parties, ethnic groups and nationalities came together in what he called a kind of "sufi" [Islamic term for mystical].

"The coexistence was so beautiful and developed spontaneously without outside interference," he said. "This expression was of real civilization, that has its roots in the genuine and full faith that comes from wise teachings of the past and the bitterness of present. It formed a mosaic so beautiful and full of life that it provided such inspiration to whole world."

He said some of the mass media reports were untrue and that what was happening in Tahrir Square "showed a real union" between Christians and Muslims. He recalled seeing a girl with a cross around her neck offering her expensive, designer scarf to a Muslim so he could use it as a prayer rug, and how a Christian relayed the words of an imam to 2,000 people because they weren't able to hear the preacher.

Muhammad Rifaa al Tahtawi, a former spokesman for Al-Azhar University in Cairo, recalled how Muslims would help protect Christians so they could pray, and vice-versa. "There was a re-emergence of the spirit of Egypt and the spirit of the orient which is a uniting spirit," he said.  "Everybody forgot the rifts and had a common goal: democracy, prosperity, justice, and common values."

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Shahbaz Bhatti

Islamic extremism, however, never seems far away, trying to undermine any aspirations toward peaceful coexistence.

The murder in Islamabad March 2 of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Catholic Minister for Minorities, was especially painful for the Sant'Egidio community, which had worked closely with him in the past, trying to improve Christian-Muslim relations in the country. The community is present in 10 Pakistani cities.

In a statement, Sant'Egidio described Bhatti as a "brave and gentle man" who had spent his entire political life working towards peaceful coexistence of all religions in the country. It said the last person Bhatti talked to was a member of the community on the telephone, just a quarter of an hour before the tragic attack.

At the conference last week, Franco Frattini had referred to the minister, saying how much the Italian government was encouraged by his inclusion in the cabinet and that the Pakistani government had a ministry dedicated to minorities.

"The death of Bhatti is a great loss for Pakistan, for the reasons for dialogue and for us all," said Marco Impagliazzo, Sant'Egidio's president.

"Although at this time sadness and anguish prevails for Pakistan's Christians," he added, "we continue to believe and hope that his sacrifice and example guide Pakis tan towards a better future and a new era of collaboration and understanding among all believers."

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: