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
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
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
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.