Hundreds of Christians peacefully marched on Tuesday evening to a cathedral in Cairo, protesting the New Year’s Day bombing of the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria.
Pope Shenouda III , head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, called on Christian youth to cease protesting and to adopt non-violent means of achieving their goals. He noted that some of the rallies protesting the attack had been joint affairs between Christians and Muslims.
In the dense neighborhood of Shubra, joint Christian-Muslim demonstrations have called for a separation of religion and state, suggesting that reformists are appealing by means of the Alexandria bombing against the turn to Muslim fundamentalism characteristic of recent years among Egypt’s public.
Meanwhile, the Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Ali Gumah (the official Muslim jurisconsult) called for joint Christian-Muslim development projects, and for television shows where Christian and Muslim youth could discuss things in public with one another, and others that promoted the peaceful co-existence of the two communities.
It is almost as though the mufti had been listening to Katie Couric! –only in an Egyptian context it is tolerance for the minority Christians that he seeks.
He drew attention to the Common Word project of Christian-Muslim dialogue in which he has been a participant in recent years. (I attended a Common Word conference at Georgetown University a couple of years ago, hosted in part by the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding headed by the indefatigable John Esposito).
He noted that the Rector of the al-Azhar Seminary, Dr. Ahmad al-Tayyib, had called for an Institute of the Egyptian Family to be founded, which would be a framework for the Church and the al-Azhar Seminary to speak with one voice against propagandists urging communal conflict, and could counter-act any tendency to religious hatred.
Dr. Gumah reiterated his condemnation of the bombing as a terrorist crime.
In contrast to the situation in the early 1980s, when Pope Shenouda was more of a firebrand and when Muslim radical groups like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad were on the rise, I am struck by how reasonable the mainstream authorities are being during this crisis. The Egyptian public got the number of the radicals in the 1990s and by late in that decade had largely turned against them. Leadership is important in getting through such crises, and the official religious leadership is clearly making an effort to calm things down. Although it is true that the Establishment clerical figures in Egyptian Sunni Islam are denigrated by the fundamentalists as cronies of President Hosni Mubarak, the institution of the Mufti, and the al-Azhar seminary, are not without authority among ordinary Egyptian Muslims.