Difficult interreligious dialogue between the Vatican and the University of Cairo

Source: FSSPX News

Whereas the traditional meeting between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Sunni Al-Azhar University in Egypt had been scheduled for February 23-24, 2011, at the Vatican, the Roman dicastery told the news agency I.media two days before then that it had not heard any news from its Egyptian counterparts.  On January 20 the most important institution in Sunni Islam had announced its decision to suspend relations with the Vatican following appeals by the pope to the rulers in the Middle East on behalf of the Christian minorities.  In fact, the authorities of Al-Azhar University, headed by the great imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb, “decided to freeze the dialogue with the Vatican until an indeterminate date,” whereas Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, had repeatedly given assurances that the Vatican was still open to dialogue and would still be available to participate in the meeting.

As a result, the dicastery was pleased by the return to Rome of Madame Lamia Aly Hamada Mekhemar, the ambassador from Egypt to the Holy See, announced on February 20 by the spokesman of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  According to him, the country “appreciated the repeated positive signals recently issued by many responsible parties in the Vatican with respect to Egypt, and decided to react favorably to them by bringing the ambassador back to her post,” after an intervention by the apostolic nuncio in Cairo, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald stating the desire of the Holy See “to turn the page on the dispute with Egypt”.

Despite everything, it was possible for a colloquium organized by the Sant’Egidio Community, entitled “Christians and Muslims – For a common future”, to be held on February 23 in Rome, with representatives from Al-Azhar University in attendance.  So it was that Muhammad Rifaa al Tahtawi, former spokesman of the University, and Hasan Shafie, special representative of the great imam, took the podium during this meeting in which the Vatican was represented by Archbishop Cyril Vasil, Secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

Muhammad Rifaa al Tahtawi, who resigned his position as spokesman of Al-Azhar University on February 4 to join the popular revolt, spoke to journalists incidentally during the colloquium.  He expressed Egypt’s respect for the Vatican and the pope, “the symbol of peace and justice in the world, whose human authority is universal”.  He emphasized that what people demand of the pope is not what they demand of others, because he is judged according to his status.  “We want him to make a gesture so that the Muslims feel that he cares about them as human beings, as he cares about everyone else,” he declared, before citing a long list of grievances.

Thus he asked Benedict XVI for “a word of respect for Islam as a religion of peace, that he say something stronger about the status of Jerusalem, more than the simple fact of wanting two states, or else that he demand the end of the [Israeli] occupation and the implementation of international decisions.”  The Egyptian representative deplored the fact that “the pope has apologized for the Holocaust, but he never considered the Crusades as an act of aggression.”  According to Muhammad Rifaa al Tahtawi, Al-Azhar University wants a fruitful dialogue that produces real results, based on a mutual respect.  Furthermore he explained in greater detail that this Sunni institution and the Islamic world as a whole had “the sense of not be treated equally as a peer.”

It would seem that Muhammad Rifaa al Tahtawi wants to see Benedict XVI renew the gesture of repentance of his predecessor.  Indeed, on March 12, 2000, John Paul II had celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica a ceremony asking forgiveness, the climax of which was the general intercessory prayer which enumerated the failings for which the Polish pope wanted the Church as a whole to repent.  This included sins “committed in the service of truth”, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades.

Cardinal Antonios Naguib, Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, was also present at the colloquium of the Sant’Egidio Community on February 23;  he expressed the hope that “the dream of the young Egyptians may be realized,” according to SIR, the agency of the Italian Bishops Conference.  These young people, he explained, make up “a generation which, thanks to social networks, have met in the street to declare their thirst for values such as justice, liberty, peace and equality”.

Cardinal Naguib fears that the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak might favor the rise to power of “groups that do not share the ideals of the young people” and who seek to “impose their agenda on the political scene”, making an implicit allusion to the Muslim Brotherhood.  “There are moderates among them, nevertheless,” he was anxious to explain.  “The one who will be called to lead Egypt now, or who will be elected in the future, will have to watch carefully so that that does not happen,” he hoped.

Questioned by the Italian daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano on February 24, 2011, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria said that he would like to see the establishment of a “civil State based on human rights and religious freedom”  (Sources : apic/imedia – DICI no. 231 dated March 5, 2011)

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