Dialogue in Egypt

From the Elite to the Street

Muslims and Christians have lived together in Egypt for fourteen centuries, and their interactions have taken a variety of expressions across the spectrum, from hostility to dialogue. However, what has happened in the last four years is a departure from historical practices. After January 2011, Christian-Muslim dialogue witnessed dramatic changes that transformed it from being a practice of the elites to a daily street interaction.

Dialogue before January 2011

Egyptian Christians were pressured by a corrupt regime from 1952 to 2011, and they often suffered as a religious minority in an Islamic country. Egyptian Christians experienced discrimination and persecution from both the state and society. Having experienced centuries of hostility from the dominant Islamic majority, Egyptian Christians developed a “battered-minority syndrome.” Largely withdrawing from public life, they felt a sense of inferiority and suffered from a heightened sensitivity to persecution and discrimination. Furthermore, the necessary outward acquiescence to orders enforced by the majority and the lack of participation in the political decision-making process has been a profoundly humiliating experience.

Christian-Muslim dialogue is one of the practices that Egyptian Christians initiated to overcome their isolation and begin to engage in the social and political life of their country. Numerous dialogue programs have been initiated between Christians and Muslims, but they have generally been dialogues between religious leaders—that is, dialogues between elites. For example, the dialogue between Al-Azhar University1 and the Anglican Church is one of the strategic dialogues that has been maintained for many years and has contributed to more understanding between Christian and Muslim leaders. The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) has held many meetings over the years between Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders, resulting in numerous publications. The Coptic Orthodox Church has also established its own forums for dialogue, where both Christian and Muslim leaders meet for official occasions such as “The Breakfast” (Iftar) during Ramadan. Likewise, numerous international nongovernmental organizations and church groups have sought to study Islam and foster dialogue between the two religions.

While dialogue programs were an important expression of Christian engagement in society before January 2011, there were also reasons for concern. All dialogues have been initiated and financed by Christians. Furthermore, these dialogues tended to concentrate on issues where there was common ground between the two religions, but they failed to discuss contentious theological issues. Unfortunately, these dialogues also occurred almost exclusively between elite scholars and leaders, with little to no impact among the common people or upon public debate. Moreover, the relationships between Christians and Muslims were not influenced by these kinds of dialogues. Hostility, polemics, and misunderstandings remained common among people in the street.

Dialogue after January 2011

After the revolution that began on January 25, 2011, Egyptian Christians hoped that a free, modern, and democratic country would be birthed. They made notable contributions to the political life of their country, emerging from behind the walls of their churches and into the streets to participate as full citizens in calling for the rights of all Egyptians. Many Christians led demonstrations and some were among the martyrs of the revolution.

The Kasr el Dobara Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church located near Tahrir Square,2 played a leading role. It is the largest Protestant church in Egypt (and in the Middle East) with 10,000 worshippers each week. Its members participate in mercy ministries, evangelistic teams, mission work in many countries, and leadership training programs. During the revolution, the leaders and regular members of the church were active among the crowds. The church opened its doors to all people, regardless of background, providing a refuge for tear-gas victims, care for the wounded, and a place for all to rest and pray. The church also held a number of “open air” services in Tahrir Square.

In general, the Christian voice was heard loud and clear during these days. Before former President Mubarak stepped down, the Council of Protestant Churches released a statement in support of people’s rights. This statement, the only one issued by a Christian church during the revolution, helped to maintain a public Christian witness in Egyptian society during uncertain times and opened the door for greater Christian contributions in the public life of the country.

The years 2012 and 2013 witnessed the rise of political Islam to rule the country. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties took over the parliament and dominated Egyptian political and social life with their radical Islamic agenda. The presidential election brought the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi to power.

It was obvious that the Egyptian people were angry due to the very poor performance of the Muslim Brotherhood during the year of their rule. They failed to fulfill even the minimum goals for which the nation revolted in January 2011, evidenced by the fact that after one year the Egyptian people lacked bread, freedom, dignity, and social justice. People’s anger escalated due to the deterioration in basic services such as security, health, education, and meeting daily needs for gas, water, and electricity. The frequent attacks on the media, political opposition, and the judicial system frustrated people. This led them to feel they had not succeeded in escaping a dictatorial, inefficient, and corrupt regime.

These were times of uncertainty for the Christians in Egypt as well. In its long history, the church has often flourished under pressure, and such is the case with the Egyptian church today. Nevertheless, thousands of Christians have emigrated to the West, and those remaining in the country have tended to withdraw from participating in public political life, returning to their old habits of hiding behind the doors of the churches. Generally speaking, Egyptians now yearn for a political savior to solve their problems, and this is especially true of Egyptian Christians.

June 30, 2013

The 30th of June, 2013, marked one year since President Morsi had come to power. In the weeks leading up to this anniversary, random unaffiliated young people, who did not represent any particular political party, started a campaign inviting each unsatisfied citizen to sign a “Tamarod” (i.e., “rebellion”) petition against Morsi and his regime. They aimed to gather fifteen million signatures to outnumber the voices that voted for Morsi in the 2012 presidential election. Surprisingly, Tamarod’s campaign succeeded in gathering over twenty million signatures, including the majority of the Christian population. Most of those who signed the petitions were determined to demonstrate in the streets on the 30th of June. Millions gathered in and around Tahrir Square and marched on the presidential palace across town. This chain of events led the army, civil organizations, and liberal parties to take power. Pope Tawadrous II of the Coptic Orthodox Church was present during the announcement of this action. The Islamists became angry and caused a great deal of trouble, including demonstrations in Rabaa and Alnahda squares in Cairo and Giza.

August 14, 2013

At 7:00 a.m. on the 14th of August 2013, in the presence of human rights workers and journalists, the government started to issue warnings to the pro-Morsi demonstrators to leave Rabaa and Alnahda Squares and go home, assuring those who wanted to leave the squares peacefully that the security forces would not pursue any of them as long as there was no arrest warrant against them from the justice system. Some complied and left quietly; others responded violently. Some who were heavily armed started to fire at the police forces and at random civilians. Others burned cars and private property. Muslim Brotherhood snipers fired machine guns and threw Molotov cocktails at the police from surrounding rooftop buildings. At the same time that the security forces were clearing Rabaa and Alnahda squares, the Muslim Brotherhood initiated their plan B, attacking private property and civilians across Egypt, especially churches and Christians.

Pope Tawadrous II made a statement about the attacks on churches that week, saying that “this had been expected, and as Egyptians and Christians, we consider our destroyed church buildings as sacrificial offerings made for our beloved Egypt.” Other church leaders made similar statements, stressing that church buildings do not make the church; rather the church is the body of Christ which is comprised of people who have their faith in him, and that this body grows in strength as it faces these challenging times. Some Muslims came to protect churches, and in response, many Christians sent messages to their fellow Muslim citizens saying, “Buildings can be rebuilt, but you are priceless, so stay safe and do not worry about the churches.” Soon after the destruction of church property, the Egyptian government announced that it would take financial responsibility for rebuilding damaged churches.

While the old form of dialogue between elite scholars and religious leaders remains, recent events have added something new. Now ordinary Christians and Muslims in the streets of the nation’s cities, towns, and villages have become engaged in a daily dialogue. Having discovered each other, they now eat together, protect each other’s homes, and talk about their faiths. This has helped to foster a more open and secure environment in which people can live and work together while pursuing the common good. This democratization of dialogue tends to focus on practical issues of common concern, and it sometimes results in joint action. If it continues, perhaps it will lead to more intentional daily interaction between Muslim and Christian neighbors.

There have been a number of welcome outcomes from this new form of dialogue. Moderate Muslims have found in Christians friends and fellow citizens who work for the good of the whole society, not only their own people. More surprisingly, opportunities to share the gospel and to plant new churches have greatly increased since the revolution, and the number of Muslim converts to Christianity has also increased. Clearly the recent informal dialogue among the common people of Egypt has far exceeded the influence of traditional elite dialogues.

ENDNOTES

1Widely considered the oldest Islamic University in the world: http://www.azhar.edu.eg/En/u.htm.

2Also known as “Martyr Square,” Tahrir is a major public town square in downtown Cairo, Egypt. The square has been the location and focus for political demonstrations in Cairo that saw the resignation of President Mubarak in 2011 and the ousting of President Morsi in 2013.