The terrorist attack in Paris this week highlights the fact that too often news about Islam and the Middle East is hard and horrible to hear. But sometimes, sadly, dark overshadows light—and it takes intentional focus and eyes of faith to see that revival and transformation may also be afoot. People have been praying for the Middle East’s leaders and Muslim politicians intensely in recent years (1 Timothy 2:1-2). It’s an underground movement. And because I know that, when I track the interfaith conversation here, and I see new things happening, I’m quick to say that God is answering.
Take Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Widely regarded as a good man, he’s a pious Muslim seeking to know and serve God. Although his policies against terrorism are internationally criticized, he is a person who seeks peaceful development in this country and region. And this week he did something daring, unexpected, and courageous.
Let me describe why I think Sisi, more than ever, needs our prayers and God’s divine protection.
Bucking the status quo on New Year’s Day, president Sisi condemned the religious establishment for not doing more to bring about a revolution within the Islamic world. Repeatedly he spoke derisively of ideas and ways of thinking that have been around for centuries—of violent world-domination in Islam—which need to be retired and replaced with peaceable spiritual interpretation of the Qur’an. Speaking at a gathering of leaders from Al-Azhar University and from Egypt’s government ministry overseeing religious affairs, his address was also televised live across the nation.
These remarks were incredibly pointed and challenging, but especially so given their context…
It is unusual for political and religious leaders to time their national addresses with the Western calendar. In this case, choosing January 1 (intentionally or not) over the date of the feast celebrating Mohammad’s birth, January 3, Sisi timed his speech in a way that gave him the option of also wishing Christians in the broadcast-audience a Happy New Year. He did it.
These seem like small things to the Western mind, but we need to know the background.
The first thing to know is what happened at al-Azhar University in the weeks preceding his speech. Be aware that Al-Azhar is Egypt’s foremost religious institution, famous for having trained Muslim clerics from around the world for more than a millennium. Founded in 970, over the centuries it was host to a variety of different sects and perspectives within Islam, making rulings that affected society and politics around the world. Both historically and recently, al-Azhar has prescribed a more moderate intellectually informed Sunni view of Islam. But what happened recently seemed to indicate a turning of the tide. In December, a religiously conservative professor of high-standing in the university refused to denounce the Muslim extremists associated with Da’sh (ISIS/ISIL in Syria/Iraq). Although these were the views of one professor, the Grand Sheikh of the University did not comment—allowing it to be thought that the University might even tolerate the Islamic-State ideology of violence.
This was the primary background that Sisi was angry about, and which he was challenging the religious leaders to do something about. But it’s worth looking deeper.
Another pattern colors the background to Sisi’s speech, and it relates less to inter-faith violence, and more to inter-faith interaction and dialogue. For as long as Egypt has been experiencing its socio-political revolutions, a religious conversation has dominated the nation’s Christmas and New Year’s landscape. Although it had been socially acceptable and common for Egypt’s moderate Muslims to express holiday greetings to their Christian neighbors (and vice-versa during the Muslim feasts)—and for some Muslims to even visit churches on Christmas Eve—a growing number of conservative voices have sprung up who condemn these actions and call Muslims who engage in such practices unbelievers.
These condemnations of Christmas and New Year’s greetings culminated last month (December 2014), when the highest Salafi (very traditionalist Muslim) leader gave a Fatwa (a guidance or moral decree, like the Pope might give to Catholics) stating that any Muslim who engaged in such inter-faith greeting was “Kafr” (an unbeliever). For this reason, Sisi’s New Year’s greeting was an antithesis in the face of certain religious leaders, some of whom who were gathered before him or watching on TV. It took courage.
For the Coptic Orthodox, Sisi’s words weren’t enough though. Still stinging from the Salafi Fatwa, they were anticipating a religiously tense Christmas Eve (for years, terrorist bombings have been carried out against churches on Christmas Eve in Egypt—explaining the heavy military and police presence in front of churches here from late December through to January 7). As a result, in an understandable tit-for-tat, Coptic Orthodox church officials and clergy boycotted invitations to attend special public gatherings on the January 3 feast celebrating Mohammad’s birthday.
And then came the much anticipated January 6—Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve.
Sisi began the day finishing meetings in Jordan, while the rest of Egypt began the day on edge, with terrorists shooting 2 police officers guarding a church in Minya, four hours South of Cairo. That evening, as Sisi’s plane was touching down on the runway, a third police officer was killed an hour away in Giza, while diffusing a bomb. What Sisi did then was remarkable. The first Egyptian president ever to do so, Sisi has himself escorted to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.
There, with the entire country watching, he interrupted the service to stand beside the Coptic Orthodox Pope and to greet Egypt’s Christians. Next, in a simple speech, he stated that love and unity must overcome violence and intolerance—“All Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—are truly one!” Brief, his message, combined with his visible presence in the church, was a clear walking of his talk. But, in that moment he’d made a target of himself. Pious and sincere as he is, others will condemn him.
Sisi has said that he is not afraid to be called an unbeliever by those who believe in violence. Terrorists' gunning down others who promote free-speech in Paris rings fresh in our ears. In this moment, I’d say the light of God is shining down in Sisi’s courage. He’s set a model for religion, politics, and leadership in the Middle East, and we must pray for an outcome that truly changes the tide, toward hope and peace.
But I am left with a question. Are our own church leaders and our western political leaders being as honest and courageous as this man of another faith? What can we do? Should we support him? How do we work toward more peaceful relations? What would it mean to step into the light?
To understand Sisi’s actions better, I talked with my friend, pastor Ishaq Zikry, the Minister of Outreach at Fagalla Evangelical Church, in the heart of Cairo. Ishaq has been working hard in these post-revolution years to advance inter-faith interaction in his neighborhood. He tells the story of successes in building strong relationships of collaboration and fellowship in the church and on the street, saying “it all began with a simple cup of tea.” He went to them, and invited Muslims to join him—and time after time, year after year, with a growing circle of co-workers in the common cause, they drank tea, they shared meals, they sang, they discussed shared values and principles of peace, they came to know and love each other. His work has shown that love can multiply.
But in light of Sisi’s statements, pastor Ishaq—who also holds the position of General Secretary in the Council for Dialogue of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt—intends to go further in 2015 than he ever has. Already, in the wake of this week’s presidential events, Ishaq is making adjustments to the plans he had for an inter-faith Valentine’s celebration on February 15. Now he will invite his usual crowd of local Muslim and Christian leaders, but he’ll also try doubly hard to bring in many more from around Cairo and Egypt. He hopes his church’s ongoing efforts can taking a running leap off of Sisi’s actions and become a truly catalyzing religious revolution among Christians and Muslims in Egypt and the Middle-East, with the goal of seeing greater dialogue, collaboration, and religious freedom in the future.
For all the steps back, the changes, and the instabilities, such small steps forward look to me like God acting in ways that should excite us. There’s much we should want to tell others about, and much that should cause us to redouble our efforts to pray and watch for future developments. Who knows? One day, perhaps years down the road, when we look at what is happening in the Middle East, and what is spreading around the world, we’ll be able to reminisce and say, “it all began with a cup of tea,” “it all began with the courage of Sisi…” or, it all began with the undeniable power of prayer!
May God give us courage and wisdom equal to the task.