Egyptian Religious Leaders Stress Interfaith Tolerance
By Greg Noakes
Broach the subject of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt with most Western observers and you're likely to hear about intolerance, polarization and fanaticism. International human rights organizations have criticized government constraints on the construction and repair of churches. Others have protested the treatment of members of the Christian minority at the hands of Egyptian security forces. Savage attacks on Coptic Christians by radical Gama'at Islamiyya cells in Upper Egypt have garnered international headlines for a number of years.
Yet two of Egypt's leading religious leaders chose to highlight the ties that bind their communities, rather than the issues which separate them, during a recent two-week visit to the United States. Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the grand mufti of Egypt, and the Rev. Samuel Habib, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, stressed themes of tolerance, goodwill and mutual dependence between Egypt's Muslims and Christians throughout their visit.
The joint tour was organized by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and took the pair to New York, the District of Columbia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where they each received an honorary doctorate in peacemaking from New Wilmington's Westminster College. The two men met with John Cardinal O'Connor, Vice President Al Gore, members of Congress, United Nations diplomats, academics, journalists and Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians and clergy, in addition to talking with an estimated 2,000 other Americans at a variety of public receptions. Tantawi and Habib spoke under the auspices of the Washington National Cathedral, the National Council of Churches, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Press Club and at mosques and universities. Special sessions also were held with various Egyptian-American communities around the country.
The trip provided interested Americans with access to two of Egypt's leading advocates of interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Sheikh Tantawi, who was appointed grand mufti in 1986, is the nation's highest Islamic religious authority, holds ministerial rank in the Egyptian government and is responsible for issuing fatwas (legal opinions) on issues of concern to the Muslim community. He holds a doctorate from Al-Azhar in Qur'anic exegesis and hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), hosts a variety of television and radio programs, writes regularly in the Egyptian press and is the author of a 15-volume Intermediate Commentary of the Qur'an.
Sheikh Tantawi is no stranger to controversy. One fatwa that has provoked considerable discussion is the mufti's ruling that simple bank interest is permissible in Islam, while excessive interest rates constitute riba (usury) and thus are forbidden. Tantawi also issued a fatwa supporting the discussion of family planning issues at last September's U.N. International Conference on Planning and Development in Cairo.
Dr. Samuel Habib, an ordained minister since 1951, is founder and director of the 45-year-old Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS). As president of both the Protestant Churches of Egypt and the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches he is a prominent voice among the region's Protestant Christian community. A prolific writer and speaker, Habib is no stranger to the United States, having received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University and his doctorate of divinity degree from Ohio's Muskingum College.
Tantawi and Habib said they wanted to make Americans aware of the positive aspects of interfaith relations in their country. The mufti declared, "Muslims and Christians in Egypt share a mutual affection and a desire for peace...All of us in Egypt are joined together in sincere friendship, respect for our faiths and love for our shared homeland." Habib added, "If we emphasize issues that unite us at the same time we talk about the issues that separate us with mutual respect, we can begin to work together. …