Egypt Islam Center Freezes Dialogue With Vatican

Protests Benedict XVI's Defense of Christians

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By Mirko Testa 

ROME, JAN. 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The Islamic Research Council of the University of al-Azhar, the highest authority of Sunni Islam, is freezing dialogue with the Vatican in protest of Benedict XVI's defense of Christians in Egypt.

This is the latest development in relations between Egypt and the Vatican that have become strained in the wake of a Jan. 1 attack on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, which caused the death of more than 20 people leaving the Divine Liturgy.

Last week, Egypt recalled its ambassador to the Holy See, Lamia Aly Hamada Mekhemar. This came after the Pope on Jan. 9 and 10 referred to the Alexandria attack.

His first comment came in the context of his greeting to a group of Italian Parliamentarians who had attended the midday Angelus address as a show of solidarity with the Egyptian Copts. His statement the following day noted the persecution of Christians in Iraq, after which he added: "In Egypt too, in Alexandria, terrorism brutally struck Christians as they prayed in church. This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities." 

Thursday's announcement of a dialogue-freeze from Al-Azhar follows a protest from the great imam there, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, who took the Holy Father's references as an "unacceptable intervention in Egypt's affairs."

The Permanent Committee of al-Azhar for Dialogue among the Monotheistic Religions has teamed with the Joint Committee for Dialogue of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue since 1998. They meet annually, alternatively in Cairo and Rome, and their next meeting was scheduled for February.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said in response to the Al-Azhar announcement that the Vatican's dialogue council is "gathering the necessary information for an adequate understanding of the situation." He added that "the line of openness and desire for dialogue of the pontifical council remains unchanged."

Translation issue

Meanwhile, Father Rafiq Greich, director of the press office of the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt, told Arabia.net that the Al-Azhar decision was "surprising."

He said the Catholic Church in Egypt has clarified more than once the truth about the Pope's words, and that last week, together with the Orthodox patriarch, representatives had taken the Pope's text in English with an Arabic translation to Mahmoud Zaqzouq, minister of religious affairs.

Father Greich said the meeting "shed light on Al-Jazeera's attempt to create problems between the Catholic Church and Egypt, and especially with Al-Azhar." Al-Jazeera is a news network.

"The Pope did not refer at all to the internal affairs of the Middle East, limiting himself to say: I ask the governments to protect the Christians and citizens of the Middle East. Al-Jazeera interpreted this passage as if the Pope had requested other governments to protect Christians, whereas he addressed his request to the local governments," the priest explained.

Father Greich added that a delegation, of which he was a part, headed by Auxiliary Bishop Kamal Fahim Awad (Boutros) Hanna of Alexandria, an aid to Cardinal Antonios Naguib, patriarch of Alexandria of the Copts, went to visit al-Tayyeb last Sunday, and that "the truth of the Pope's interventions" had been clarified.

The sheikh of Al-Azhar invited the Vatican "to pay more attention in its interventions," but added that he was willing to issue a communiqué to explain what emerged during the meeting. 

However, said Father Greich, "the communiqué never happened, and we were surprised when reading the communiqué of the Islamic Research Council manifesting the desire to interrupt dialogue with the Vatican, whereas we are convinced that everything can be resolved with dialogue."

"We are sorry that this is the position of the Islamic Research Council, especially because we see in its members prudence and wisdom, and we hope that dialogue will be taken up again as soon as possible at the local and Vatican level, especially because Catholics are an essential part of Egyptian society," he added.

Spirit of Assisi

Additionally, an Egyptian daily reported that al-Tayyeb will not be attending the Assisi interreligious meeting convoked by Benedict XVI for October. The Pope announced Jan. 1 that he would personally participate in the Assisi gathering, which marks the 25th anniversary of the first interreligious prayer for peace event held there by Pope John Paul II.

"These meetings, ultimately, are not bringing any good to Muslims, and they don't do good to the East but only to the West," declared al-Tayyeb. "And in all the conferences in which we took part in the past, we said clearly that the West is not serious in its way of approaching the nature of Islamic civilization and the civilization of the Middle East and of Easterners."

"We hold ourselves to our relationship with the Vatican, but we also have the right not to be in agreement with the Vatican," he added, "and we hope that Benedict XVI, as a religious who appeals for peace, will address a word to Muslims apologizing for the Crusades and acknowledging the richness that the Islamic civilization has contributed to European civilization."

[With the contribution of Tony Assaf]