Al-Azhar University Should Resume and Widen its Vatican Dialogue
A. Rashied Omar
On January 20, 2011, al-Azhar University in Egypt, the most prestigious Islamic University in the world, announced that it is indefinitely suspending and freezing its ties and dialogue with the Vatican. The reason? The Shaykh al-Azhar, or the president of the al-Azhar University, Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb said that Pope Benedict XVI’s repeated insults against Islam and his claim that Muslims are discriminating against Christians who live alongside them was the reason for the breakdown in relations.
The latest pronouncements by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI came on January 2, 2011, when he condemned the suicide car bombing outside the All Saints Coptic Christian Church after a New Year’s mass in the Egyptian city of Alexandria that left 23 people dead and dozens injured. In an address to foreign ambassadors at the Vatican a week later on January 10, Pope Benedict again condemned the New Year’s church attack in Egypt, along with violence against Christians in Iraq, and he added a call on ‘governments of the region to adopt ... effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.’
It appears that the Egyptian government interpreted Pope Benedict’s general appeal to all Middle Eastern governments to do more to assure the safety of their Christian citizens as equating the situation in Egypt to that of Iraq, which they apparently found offensive. Consequently, on January 11, a day after Benedict's speech to the diplomats, the government of Egypt recalled its ambassador to the Vatican to protest what a government spokesman called the pope's "unacceptable interference in Egypt's internal affairs."
Al-Azhar’s suspension of dialogue with the Vatican raises three interrelated questions for interreligious peacebuilders. First, is Pope Benedict XVI’s policy on Islam prudent given the volatile post-9/11 world we live in? Second, does the Pope’s diplomacy with Muslims require more nuance? Third, is al-Azhar University over-reacting in its response to Benedict’s remarks?
Pope Benedict’s Relationship with the Muslim World
Since the beginning of his papacy in April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI has been unequivocal in advocating a more hard-line policy towards Muslims than that of his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II. His removal of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s (PCID) was viewed by many observers as the first clear indication of this new assertive policy. During the sermon he preached at the inauguration of his pontificate, Benedict explicitly named the Jewish people as those with whom to seek dialogue, while referring to other believers in general terms only. Some Muslims drew the conclusion from this that for Pope Benedict dialogue with Muslims was not high on his agenda. Just more than a year later in September 2006, came his infamous Regensburg lecture in which Pope Benedict XVI offered debatable theological reasons for Islam’s alleged propensity to violence. His assertion outraged the Muslim world and led to calls on him to apologize and retract his remarks.
All of the above has not endeared Pope Benedict XVI to the Muslim World. In particular, it has clearly hampered what must be acknowledged is his courageous witness for full religious freedom and protection for Christian minorities living in Muslim majority countries.
As the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, Shaykh El-Tayeb, suggests in his statement explaining the suspension of ties, Muslims perceive Pope Benedict to be mute on the daily violence and killing of innocent Muslims in Iraq and Palestine by American and Israeli forces, leaving a blurred impression that Islam and Muslims are to blame for violence everywhere. Furthermore, the Pope’s statements seem to have shown very little awareness that Christians were targeted in churches in Baghdad and Egypt in the aftermath of the American-led invasion of Iraq against international law and as a reaction to Western support for what many believe have been Israeli crimes against humanity in the West Bank and Gaza.
It is unfortunate also that Pope Benedict did not acknowledge the unequivocal condemnation of the Church bombings that came from many diverse voices within the Muslim world, including from the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa. Benedict could have applauded the wonderful example of droves of Egyptian Muslims who attended the Coptic Christmas service on January 7th to serve as “human shields” in order to protect their Christian co-citizens.
With acknowledgments such as these, the Pope could then have made his call on governments in the Middle East not to allow the sectarian agenda of a terrorist minority to be fulfilled. Instead, he could have urged, they should use this tragic moment as an opportunity to affirm the full dignity and religious freedom of Christians and all other religious minorities in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim World. Such an approach might well have led to a less antagonistic response from the Egyptians.
Shortsightedness of the al-Azhar Response
But is suspending dialogue with the Vatican the best strategy to convey Muslim frustrations with Pope Benedict’s antagonistic policy on Islam? I do not think so. Rather than freezing dialogue al-Azhar should have called for more dialogue on Christian-Muslim relations.
However injudicious his portrayal of Islam may be, Pope Benedict’s persistent highlighting of the plight of Christian minorities in Muslim majority settings should be welcomed by Muslims as an opportunity for dialogue and engagement on a contentious but highly significant issue. The religious freedom and well-being of Christian minorities represent Islamic duties of such high ethical standing that Muslims should constantly strive to advance them. This noble Islamic teaching was most eloquently articulated in the Egyptian Grand Mufti, Shaykh Ali Gomaa’s statement condemning the bombing of the Coptic Church in Alexandria. He argued that “(t)he Prophet considered non-Muslims and Muslims as participating in a social contract which was inviolable. The promise of a Muslim is sacrosanct, for as he (the Prophet) said, “Whoever unjustly persecutes one with whom he has an agreement, or short-changes his rights, or burdens him beyond his capacity, or takes something from him without his blessing, I I will be an argument against him on the Day of Judgment.”
Interreligious dialogue concerning the position of Christian minorities within Muslim majority societies is thus a wonderful opportunity for Muslim self-reflection and renewal.
However, such a dialogue should not be restricted to the lack of religious freedom and full citizenship for Christian minorities in the Middle East. It must move on to address other contentious issues such as the Vatican’s ambivalent position on Kairos Palestine, a theological statement endorsed by almost all the Heads and Leaders of Christian Churches in Palestine. This document describes itself as ‘a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of the Palestinian suffering’ and I firmly believe it is destined to become a watershed moment in the history of the Palestinian struggle against the tyranny of Israeli oppression.
The Egyptian political elite have become extremely sensitive to reactions against the criminal attacks on the Coptic Church in Alexandria and have taken umbrage at Pope Benedict’s calls on Middle Eastern governments or Muslim governments to do more to protect its Christian monitories. Al-Azhar University is a state funded body, and it has been co-opted (perhaps against its better judgment), frequently coming out in support of a state that does not respond too well to public criticism.
Here resides one of the major crises of the established Muslim religious leadership in many Muslim majority countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The `ulama or Muslim religious scholars have abandoned their role as the moral conscience of their societies by not speaking out more coherently on the human rights violations and injustices that permeate their societies. Many of them, while speaking out apologetically against certain forms of injustices against Muslims, are providing religious legitimacy to despotic and oppressive regimes. Moreover, non-violent civil resistance campaigns are not tolerated in most Muslim countries, and outspoken religious leaders are either incarcerated or exiled.
Let’s Strengthen–Together-Our Fragile World
Perhaps most importantly, in its overreaction to Pope Benedict’s recent remarks al-Azhar University has inadvertently played into the hands of extremists whose goal is create and exacerbate belligerence between Muslims and Christians.
As one of the foremost Catholic experts on Islam, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, so correctly reminds us, we live in a fragile world and some believe is on the precipice of a catastrophe. In such a lethal environment, when what is at stake is no less than the sanctity of human life, what is the role of credible religious leaders? Archbishop Fitzgerald provides sage advice within this volatile context when he calls on religious leaders to act judiciously and with great circumspection. Lamentably, Fitzgerald’s wise counsel has been dispensed with under the papacy of His Holiness Benedict XVI, and his compelling message has been disregarded with adverse consequences for Christian-Muslim relations. The latest breakdown in relations between Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, the al-Azhar University and the Vatican is a yet another clear case in point.
Christian and Muslim leaders should not allow themselves to be distracted from the task at hand of building bridges of honesty, truth and trust through a true and meaningful mutual dialogue. Muslim leaders have an especially onerous challenge of condemning overreactions and not allowing misguided individuals who act in a thoroughly reprehensible and depraved way, to sully the name of Islam.
Despite our current predicament, I am hopeful that Catholics and Muslims will weather this latest hiccup in their relationship thanks in large part to the strong bridges that were built between our two communities by the late Pope John-Paul II. These strong and firm links will, I trust, help Catholics and Muslims to brave the aftermath of this regrettable episode.
A. Rashied Omar is Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, USA, and Imam of the Claremont Main Road Masjid in Cape Town, South Africa.