The May 23 meeting between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, Ahmed al-Tayeb, have sparked hopes in Egypt for a significant improvement in Christian-Muslim relations.
“It was the first time that the grand imam of al-Azhar University visited the Pope. It was clearly a very cordial meeting. You could see that from the body language and the familiarity between the pope and the grand imam. We believe that this has broken the ice in the relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar University.” Such was the assessment by Father Rafic Greiche, the chief spokesman for the Catholic church in Egypt.
In an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the priest added: “The resumption of an official dialogue, which was suspended by al-Azhar University in 2011, may not have been explicitly announced yet, but that is just a formality. I am firmly convinced that talks will resume.”
The most important Islamic institution of Egypt, which is highly respected throughout the Sunni world, unilaterally suspended talks with the Holy See in 2011.
The reason for the move was an appeal Pope Benedict XVI made for better protection of religious freedom in Egypt. Al-Azhar University officials considered this to be an inadmissible interference in the internal affairs of Egypt. Benedict XVI’s appeal was in response to the bloody attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day in 2011, violence which left numerous dead and wounded.
Reasons for confidence
Father Greiche cited the positive coverage of the meeting with Francis by Egyptian media. “The meeting made the headlines on both television and in newspaper; the comments were generally very positive,” he said.
The priest emphasized that under the leadership of Grand Imam al-Tayeb, al-Azhar University is making an effort to adjust the content of the textbooks used at the schools and institutions of higher education it oversees, moving toward a presentation of Christianity that is less negative.
Nonetheless, the Melkite priest said that the situation of Christians in Egypt has vastly improved since President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted in 2013. He said: “Today, there are very good relations between Church leaders and government agencies. There are still many problems, of course, but I have the impression that Muslims are growing more aware of our situation.”
The biggest hurdle Christian Churches face in Egypt is the great difficulty in obtaining building permits for the construction of new churches. At the request of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a coalition of Churches has submitted to Parliament a draft of new legislation governing the matter. “We hope that Parliament will pass the new legislation by October. We have never had as many Christian Members of Parliament and so many Muslims on our side. It will of course be opposed by Salafist legislators. But there are not many of them. I am confident.”
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)