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Imams and priests gather, as Egypt simmers

21 March 2014


Interaction: imams and priests, includ­ing the Most Revd Mouneer Anis (centre), meeting last week at the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo

Interaction: imams and priests, includ­ing the Most Revd Mouneer Anis (centre), meeting last week at the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo

AN INTERFAITH initiative in Egypt, which was started last year to help ease Muslim-Christian tensions, has launched a new programme of events for 2014.

"Together for a New Egypt: The Imam-Priest Exchange" began when 30 imams and 30 priests of various denominations came together in 2013 at the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, the most prestigious seat of Sunni Islamic scholarship, to engage in dialogue. Those who took part returned to al-Azhar last week to share what they had learned, and commit themselves to further contacts in the year ahead.

The initiative is sponsored by Bait il-Aila (House of the Family), a group that brings together the leaders of Christian denominations, including the President-Bishop in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, and Muslim leaders.

At the meeting last week, Bishop Anis said that Egypt was passing through a critical situation, and that sectarian tension was still a danger. He emphasised that it was the Egyptian people alone who could rescue the country, and that imams and priests had significant influence at the grass roots of society.

A report into the first year of the imam-priest exchange noted how, at first, the participants were reluctant to interact. But, after several days of informal contact, the situation improved. One of the priests said: "In the first session, the conversations were difficult, and only at a superficial level. However, on the first evening, there was a session about how to accept others. This broke the ice, and during the following two days, priests were competing to sit next to an imam."

Although the exchange programme is playing a part in bridging the sectarian divide, it can do little to ease growing tension between the military-backed transitional government and the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The latter still in-sists that Muhammed Morsi, who was removed from power by the army last July, and imprisoned, is the lawfully elected President of Egypt.

Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters were killed and injured in the weeks after this, as the military demolished protest-camps in the centre of Cairo. Since then, an estimated 3000 mid-ranking and senior Brotherhood officials have been detained, constituting about one third of the total of Egyptians arrested for political activity.

Many Egyptians - not least the Christian communities - welcomed the ousting of the Islamist administration, and the subsequent crackdown on the Brotherhood, as they were fearful that it was seeking to impose its values on public life.

But some former supporters of the army's actions are beginning to wonder whether the military can succeed in its aim of eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood as a force in society without a violent backlash that will have an impact on daily life. Over recent weeks, the number of attacks on army targets and public buildings has risen sharply, as has the crackdown on public protests.

There are also concerns that if, as expected, the Army Chief of Staff, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, becomes the next President of Egypt, the country will effectively have returned to the state of affairs before the 2011 revolution that removed President Hosni Mubarak from power. Like his predecessors, Mr Mubarak emerged from the military - and this remains the most powerful institution in Egypt.

While the economy is still in a state of collapse, and the political future uncertain, no Egyptian has yet come forward with a formula for the country to regroup and rebuild itself in an inclusive manner. The imam-priest initiative is clearly successful as far as it goes. But, in the absence of some much more comprehensive vision for national reconciliation, Egypt looks set for more stormy times ahead.

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