Political instability in Egypt and a media misinterpretation of remarks by Pope Benedict XVI were the principal reasons behind a surprise suspension of dialogue between one of Islam's foremost universities and the Vatican, according to Catholic Church experts on the region.
On Jan. 20, the Al Azhar University in Cairo announced it was suspending dialogue with the Vatican indefinitely.
The university, known as the pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, ostensibly made the move in protest at calls by the Pope for greater protection of Christians in Egypt after the massacre of Orthodox Coptic Christians by Islamic extremists in an Alexandrian church on New Year's Day.
Al Azhar complained the Pope was interfering in internal Egyptian affairs, but Catholic Church experts believe a misinterpretation of the Pope's words were at fault.
Some Western media, such as Al-Jazeera, falsely portrayed the Pope as calling on all Western governments to intervene to protect Christians in Egypt. The pontiff, in fact, called on the “practical and constant effort of the leaders of nations” to ensure religious freedom for their citizens.
Egyptian Jesuit and adviser to the Vatican on Islam, Father Samir Khalil Samir, also blames pressure from the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak for the decision, noting that Church leaders in Egypt had shown the rector of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad Al Tayyib, the Pope's original text.
The rector promised to write a declaration which was expected to be positive, but instead relations were cut.
“Al Azhar has been known for decades for submitting totally to the government,” Fr. Samir tells Newsmax. “The rector was probably asked by an official in the government, perhaps in the ministry of foreign affairs, to suspend dialogue for religious reasons.”
The government, he said, wanted to appear strong in the face of internal instability — a view supported by other regional Catholic observers who believe the freezing of dialogue is also a “smokescreen” to conceal Egypt’s responsibility for the Alexandria attack and ongoing discrimination against Christians in the country.
Relations will be restored eventually, observers believe, and although the Vatican takes this move seriously, it is not unduly alarmed by Al Azhar's decision and is prepared to wait for relations to return to normal.
In an interview today with the Vatican newspaper, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Vatican's inter-religious dialogue council, stressed the importance of dialogue in building peace, saying it “must continue” and that future appointments with Al Azhar were “still valid.” But he also made a slight criticism for misinterpreting the Pope's words.
“If we want progress in dialogue, we must first find the time to sit down and talk person to person and not through the newspapers,” he said. “I hope that whoever reads the speeches of Pope Benedict XVI is helped to understand how communities of believers are called to become schools of prayer and fellowship.”
Despite Sheikh Ahmad Al Tayyib saying Al Azhar will not be attending a major interreligious meeting which the Pope plans to hold in Assisi in October 2011, the Vatican is also hopeful the dispute will have been resolved by then.
Arguably of greater concern to the Catholic Church is the future of Egypt in the wake of ongoing protests in the country against the Mubarak government, and the possibility that Islamists may fill any power vacuum.
Egypt's population is less educated that Tunisia's and tends to follow more closely the preaching of imams, according to Fr. Samir, who advises the Vatican on Islam.
He believes the recent protests in Egypt and Tunisia — both of which have been directed against corrupt rulers and elites — have connections with Islamists.
“When the governments are corrupt, even just a little, immediately the Islamists exploit this weak point and say: 'Look, they are against God, against Muslims, they are not true Muslims. They are not helping the poor,'” he said.
He added that the Islamists step in to carry out the social work that the government is expected to do. “It's a case of either a dictatorial system or the Islamists take power,” Fr. Samir said. “We absolutely and urgently need a real democratic social government.”
He said he expected protests in Egypt would mirror those in Tunisia but noted that the structure of the country is such that regime change cannot be achieved “except through a revolution.”
“In Egypt they will concede something, recognize some errors and give some rights,” Fr. Samir said, “but they are not ready to change.”
A Catholic Church official in Egypt, reluctant to speak on the record to Newsmax for fear of reprisals, said he expected the situation in the country to worsen before it improves.
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