Saturday, 16 April 2011

Understanding Church-Muslim Relations (Part 1)

Egypt's Ali Al-Samman on Freezing Relations With Holy See
By Emil Amin

CAIRO, Egypt, APRIL 15, 2011 ( The president of Egypt's Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs is noting that a decision to freeze dialogue with the Holy See from Sunni Islam's highest authority may have been hasty.

In 1998, Ali Al-Samman was the architect of the joint committee that brings together the Cairo-based Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue among the Monotheistic Religions and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

In Part 1 of a two-part interview with ZENIT, Al-Samman offered his perspective on the Jan. 20 announcement of a dialogue-freeze from the Cairo-based Islamic Research Council of the University of Al-Azhar, which came in protest of Benedict XVI's statements on religious freedom following a Jan. 1 attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria.

The great imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad at-Tayyeb, alleged that the papal comments were an intervention in Egypt's internal affairs.

In addition to the Al-Azhar decision, Egypt also requested that its ambassador to the Holy See "return to Cairo for consultations with the Egyptian foreign ministry," the Vatican reported at the time.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Sunday.

ZENIT: Let us begin by talking about the attack on the Coptic Church of Alexandria in Egypt last December 31. What is your opinion on this painful event?

Al-Samman: All that happened in Alexandria is more than a disagreeable event, and what hurt me even more is to have learned later that responsibility for the event was imputed to employees of the security service.

Moreover, what makes me angry in this type of incident is the delay in initiating the investigations and the delay in punishing those who are culpable, which is in itself more dangerous than the incident itself.

ZENIT: Why are we witnessing, in recent times, growing violence of a religious kind in Egypt?

Al-Samman: In my opinion, one of the main reasons for religious sedition is the delay in punishments.

For example, referring to the case of Al Kamouni, who killed some Copts in the city of Nag Hammadi, we see that a whole year went by before sentence was passed.

Because of this, on more than one occasion -- in articles and television interviews -- I have insisted on the fact that it is necessary to work on the elaboration of laws that concern religious riots that put in danger the security of the nation and it is necessary to apply exceptional, rapid and dissuasive measures.

Extremism continues, which is the spiritual father of all these crimes.

ZENIT: How do you judge the reactions to Benedict XVI's comment on what happened in Alexandria?

Al-Samman: When certain expressions are used by a leader, the evaluation that follows is always more difficult, and the affirmations give the impression that there is an authority that protects Christians of the East; this brings to memory the old sentiments with regard to the protection of the faction of Arab Christians, which history remembers as those who helped Muslim brothers in the face of foreign invasions.

ZENIT: But have Benedict XVI's words merited such opposition on the part of Al-Azhar, which has interrupted the channels of dialogue with the Vatican?

Al-Samman: Personally I am not in agreement with the position of Al-Azhar, in the sense that if I had been the one responsible, I would not have blocked this dialogue in this way.

Perhaps I would have preferred a period of transition, during which meetings would have been held to come to a satisfactory solution on both sides, without having to freeze the dialogue.

Obviously, when I speak of relations between Al-Azhar and the Vatican, I am speaking of one of the most important periods of my life, when I was responsible in the interreligious dialogue at the time of Sheikh Jad Al-Haqq, and until the signing in 1998 of the agreement with the Vatican, with Sheikh Muhammad Tantawy.

ZENIT: Hence, you would have preferred a more prudent reaction?

Al-Samman: Without a doubt, especially because of the fact that in the Vatican there is a large number of persons capable of being intermediaries to resolve the crisis with the least possible damage.

In this matter the Christians of the Middle East are important: their interests, their presence and what we can do for them.

I think that the Pope's words in regard to Egypt were influenced by the earlier attack on the Church in Iraq. This could also have influenced the tone of his statements.

ZENIT: What do you think of the reaction of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which recalled the Egyptian ambassador to the Holy See for consultations?

Al-Samman: I cannot criticize the position of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. They must hold to their own diplomatic rules.

What is true is that this reflects the state of dissatisfaction produced by the Pope's words, although in reality diplomacy has other functions that go beyond casual reactions. And it is always better to leave the door open to analyze and review these problematic issues.

ZENIT: There are Muslim voices in Europe that have considered mistaken the decision to sever relations with the Vatican. What do you think?

Al-Samman: Without a doubt those who live in Europe are in contact with another, different reality and they coexist in European society with other voices that know a certain language of concord and collaboration. And we are in real need of such voices.

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