After entering the ornate offices of Al Azhar University and Mosque, our delegation from the Christian Reformed Church of North America was seated in the reception room and offered tea and Turkish coffee. Everywhere we went we experienced Egyptian hospitality that was warm and welcoming. After a period of sipping strong coffee, we were led into a large conference room. We were expecting a quick meet and greet, but to our surprise we were invited to sit down with the Grand Sheik, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, and speak with this religious leader who has great influence over the world of Sunni Islam. Dr. Al-Tayeb said some important things to us. He said that neither the religions of Christianity nor Islam promote injustice or terror. Extremists seek political gains rather than religious gains and that unfaithful religious leaders abuse their religion when they promote terror. He criticized religious leaders of falling short in delivering their true faith and that this is the reason for animosity rather than collaboration among the different faiths.
He admitted that no one should be forced to convert against their will, and that in inter-religious dialogue there will be areas that we will not agree on or we will “destroy religion.” He counseled us to focus not on doctrine but rather on ethics and values that we hold in common (for example, members of both faiths are concerned about the rise of secularism in our societies). He stated that “religion and ethics are two sides of the same coin.” When he was asked what we in North America could do to encourage dialogue between Christians and Muslims, he encouraged us to focus on a common shared ethic in our dialogue. He also challenged us to combat secularism and godlessness in our own society.
Meeting the Grand Sheik impressed upon me a novel idea, that there are Muslims whom we should be in prayer for, Muslims who can influence the dialogue between religious believers towards moderation and understanding. Extremists are never happy with such moderation, and so individuals such as the Grand Sheik, who are willing to speak out in this way, need our prayers. We also met with Christian leaders who were interested in inter-religious dialogue. We were privileged to meet with the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, who is committed to ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.
As the CRCNA undertakes more of an active role in inter-religious dialogue in North America, we can learn a lot from our Christian and Muslim friends in Egypt. Egypt has a long history of Christian-Muslim interaction, and in the end, most Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, see themselves as Egyptians first. That is why the sectarian violence that broke out at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo was so surprising. What didn’t make the western press was the march by Muslims several days later protesting the government’s lack of response to the violence against Christians.
As we pursue inter-religious dialogue in our communities, let us look to the Grand Sheik, the Coptic Patriarch, and other Egyptian church leaders, to guide us in starting dialogues that encourage peace between Muslim and Christian communities in North America. Let us be proactive and live out Jesus’ command to love our neighbors by engaging them in friendly, peace-building and enlightening dialogue.