By Oliver Maksan
Following the meeting between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of the Sunni al-Azhar University, Ahmed al-Tayeb, last week at the Vatican, hopes have soared in Egypt that this will bring Christians and Muslims closer together. “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,” Father Rafic Greiche, the chief spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, said Wednesday in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need.
“The resumption of 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, had unilaterally suspended bilateral talks with the Holy See in 2011. The reason given for this was Pope Benedict XVI’s public admonition to better protect religious freedom in Egypt. Al-Azhar University considered this to be an inadmissible interference in the internal matters of Egypt. The former pope had made the statement in response to the bloody attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day in 2011, during which many people were killed or wounded.
Father Rafic talked about the positive response to the meeting on the part of Egyptian media. “The meeting was headline news both on television as well as in the newspapers. In general, the comments were very positive.” Father Rafic then said that the encounter not only has an interreligious dimension, but also an ecumenical one. “The head of the Coptic Orthodox church, Pope Tawadros, had encouraged the grand imam to begin a dialogue with the Catholic church on numerous occasions. A meeting like this and the resumption of talks naturally not only has an effect on the relationship between Muslims and Catholics, but also all Christians.”
Father Rafic emphasised that under the leadership of Grand Imam al-Tayeb, al-Azhar University is making an effort to reform the schoolbooks and textbooks used at the schools and institutions of higher education it oversees. “They are trying to use a new language with respect to us Christians. But there is still a lot left to be done. This is a process that will take years. However, it would be more critical to change the mindset of the imams than to change the books,” Father Rafic said.
Father Rafic emphasised that the situation of the Christians in Egypt has vastly improved since Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted in July of 2013. “There is no comparison between the situation today and that during the government of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, we have very good relations between church leaders and government agencies. However, there are still many problems, of course. But it is my impression that Muslims are growing more aware of our situation,” the Greek Catholic priest said. “Of course, the most pressing matter for us is the question of church building projects. This has been subject to massive restrictions up until this point. Five churches have now submitted draft legislation to parliament. President Sisi asked us to prepare a draft law. We hope that this parliamentary session will still deliberate upon and pass the draft legislation by October. After all, we have never had as many Christian members of parliament and so many Muslims on our side. It will of course be opposed by the Salafist members. But there are not many of them. And so I am confident.”
Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting the Catholic Church in Egypt for many years. In addition to numerous pastoral projects, it also promotes the building of churches.