The Long Road of Change for Egypt (Part 3)

Luxor’s Bishop Zakaria on Islam-Vatican Relations

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By Emil Ameen

LUXOR, Egypt, JULY 24, 2011 ( Even thought Egypt is currently undergoing a period of turmoil and change, the nation will not only survive, it will improve, says the Catholic Coptic bishop of Luxor.

Bishop Youhannes Zakaria, 61, told ZENIT that “the Egyptian civilization has excelled and overcome all the difficulties and pains through its long history, which extends over thousands of years,” and that after this “delicate period in history, Egypt will triumph and improve, thanks to that Egyptian spirit deep-rooted in all Egyptians’ hearts, and thanks to the courage and enthusiasm of all its citizens.”

The bishop said this in a three-part interview on the current situation in Egypt after the Jan. 25 revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime.

In Part 3, Bishop Zakaria discusses the call for foreign protection of Egypt’s Copts, the breakdown of dialogue between the Vatican and the Cairo-based Research Council of the University of Al-Azhar and prospects for the future of Egypt.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Friday, and Part 2 of this interview appeared Sunday.

ZENIT: We started to hear voices asking the Vatican to intervene for the protection of Egypt’s Copts. How do you explain such a phenomenon especially that the Vatican has no military troops or armies?

Bishop Zakaria: Personally, I do not accept what is called the foreign protection of the Copts. Copts who live in Diaspora and call for this issue should be educated on the danger of this request, and its harmful influence on the interests of the Copts living in Egypt next to their Muslim brothers.

Benedict XVI, who is the head of the Holy See, a spiritual state that does not have a regular army like the other states, spares no effort in praying for Christians and non-Christians all over the world, especially when natural catastrophes afflict them or when they live in painful and difficult conditions.

Recently, the Holy Father mentioned the tragic incidents that the Church’s followers in Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan are experiencing, and asked that everyone be united with him in prayer for them. He also asked those responsible in these countries to pay more attention to and care for their subjects. This request is not considered as interference in the internal affairs of the mentioned countries, but a message of love and support to advocate the help of the man oppressed and hurt by his human brother.

ZENIT: Could you comment on the decision of the highest authority of Sunni Islam, Ahmad at-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar Mosque, and the Cairo-based Research Council of the University of Al-Azhar, to freeze dialogue with the Vatican in protest of Benedict XVI’s statements on religious freedom following a Jan. 1 attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria?

Bishop Zakaria: I think that this subject needs more patience, time, and mutual dialogue so that the two sides understand each other.

Now, I see that the insistence on resuming the dialogue in any possible way does not serve this desired dialogue. I also think that some statements issued from here and there about this issue, and explained by the media according to their interests and policy, are more of harmful than good to improving relations between the Holy See and Al-Azhar Mosque.

With all due respect and appreciation to everyone, I want to explain that the desired dialogue is not a dialogue between the Holy Father Benedict XVI and Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Dr. at-Tayyeb, but it is a dialogue between the Holy See in all what it represents of a profound Christian spiritual heritage, and Al-Azhar in all what it represents of authentic Islamic liberality.

I hope that the two sides will communicate quickly, and the dialogue will be resumed soon, because severing the ties and putting an end to the dialogue harm both sides and do not do them any good.

ZENIT: After the meeting between Benedict XVI and Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs, Nabil Al-Arabi, who has since been elected the secretary-general of the Arab League, what is the status of Vatican -Egypt relations?
Bishop Zakaria: After the Copts’ martyrdom in the Saints church in Alexandria, the Holy Father Benedict XVI denounced this terrorist act, and called the Egyptian government and the Middle Eastern governments to pay more attention to the protection of the Christian minority in this country.

Unfortunately, the former Egyptian government did not understand the Pope’s message and considered it as interference in the Egyptian internal affairs. And in protest at this interference, the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs called the Egyptian ambassador to the Holy See back to Cairo for consultations.

Meanwhile, most of the world’s leaders denounced the attack on the church in Alexandria, and called the Middle East’s governments to protect the Christian minority. But there was no reaction from the Egyptian government as happened with the Holy Father.

After the return of the Egyptian ambassador to continue her mission to the Holy See, and after Mubarak’s overthrow, and the change of the Egyptian government, the Egyptian minister of foreign affairs visited the Holy See, met the Holy Father, and discussed with him the way to promote close bilateral relations between the Arab republic of Egypt and the Vatican state. He also informed him of the latest developments on the Egyptian scene after the youth revolution and the regime’s change in Egypt. Thus, the relations between the Arab republic of Egypt and the Holy See returned to normality, and the two sides understood that was happened was a result of misunderstanding and a sensitive situation.

After the Egyptian minister of affairs visit to the Holy See, and the visit of the secretary of the committee of dialogue between Christianity and Islam in the Vatican to Al-Azhar’s Imam in Cairo, dialogue was supposed to be resumed between the two sides. But unfortunately, after a meeting of the senior scholars in Al-Azhar, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam declared the postponement of the dialogue’s resumption between Al-Azhar and the Holy See.

ZENIT: Two decades ago, Samuel Huntington talked about the clash of the civilizations that breaks out due to religious reasons. Is the change from the “Arab Spring” to the “Fundamentalist Spring” the fulfillment of this man’s prophecy?

Bishop Zakaria: After the fall and failure of the Communism, the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the liberation of the countries of Eastern Europe, the dissolution of Warsaw pact, and the end of the Cold War between the East and the West, western countries had to find an alternative for competition and conflict in order to spread the political influence and show their military might. The East-West clash began with an increase of terrorist acts committed by some Islamic groups, which led to the war to liberate Kuwait, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. These wars that aim at eliminating international terrorism are still considered by some people as a war between the Christian West and the Muslim East. Others see that this war is the clash of civilizations that breaks out due to religious reasons, as Samuel Huntington wrote in his book about “the clash of the civilizations”.

I hope that this youth revolution against the injustice and corruption of dictatorships, the start of the Arab Spring’s revolution, and the bloom of the freedom’s flowers, lead to fulfill the dream of a civilian democratic country, and build the ideal society based on love and peace, a society that gathers all the citizens without any religious or denominational discrimination, and in which all of them are brothers who love and help each other for the good and well-being of their country.

ZENIT: Finally, between pessimism and optimism, what is your feeling? And what is your advice for all Egypt
ians, Muslims and Copts, in this turning point through which Egypt is going?

Bishop Zakaria: As an Egyptian citizen who studied thoroughly the Egyptian history of civilizations that extends from past centuries until now, I feel optimistic about the power of the Egyptian people with all its members and categories, all its Muslims and Christians, to overcome all the crises that hinder the construction of the modern and developed Egyptian state, so that it reaches a position among the civilized and modern world’s countries.

As the Egyptian civilization has excelled and overcome all the difficulties and pains through its long history, which extends over thousands of years, and as the Egyptian’s renewed genius has succeeded in triumphing over all the powers of occupation, injustice and oppression, in this delicate period in history, Egypt will triumph and improve, thanks to that Egyptian spirit deep-rooted in all Egyptians’ hearts, and thanks to the courage and enthusiasm of all its citizens.

And as a Christian who believes in hope, and lives by the power of love and faith, I tend toward optimism.

It is optimism, though it is associated with caution due to the difficulty of the freedom’s path, and attention to what hinders the construction of the modern state, and the achievement of a better life and a bright future for all Egyptians.

My advice for all my compatriots is to cooperate in the work of constructing Egypt’s future, put aside what separates us, and seek to establish a society of love and peace.

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