29 May 2011
The tragic incident at the Sayidat al-Nejat church in Iraq in October last year sent shock waves throughout the Christian Middle East. In Cairo, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb said it was vital to avoid similar events here in Egypt. In a written statement he proposed the formation of a council called ‘The Home of the Egyptian Family’ to include all the Christian and Islamic sects.
On a visit to Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church earlier this year, Sheikh Tayeb handed over a copy of his project. Copies were also sent to other Christian sects in Egypt. Pope Shenouda welcomed the idea, and accordingly primary sessions were held last March. A joint committee of the Orthodox Church and al-Azhar was formed to write the bylaws of the council. Sessions were held at the Cathedral in Abbassiya and at al-Azhar to discuss the bylaws’ final form.
Watani broached the matter with Mahmoud Azab, consultant of the al-Azhar Grand Imam for dialogue between religions. “The Grand Imam and the Pope will head the Home of the Family alternately, and each of them will be supported by assistants,” Dr Azab says. Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, the former endowments minister, will be the council’s secretary-general while Bishop Ermiya, Pope Shenouda’s secretary, will be the deputy secretary-general.
The council, Dr Azab says, includes two sub-councils. One is the Board of Trustees with not less than 11 members and not more than 27, whose main task will be to set the council’s policy and supervise its general coordination. The other is the Executive Council, consisting of the same number of members and containing several sub-committees including a media committee, an education and family committee, a youth committee, and a monitoring and follow-up committee. The last will focus on specific trends or incidents in the community that might lead to sectarian strife. It will also monitor Islamic and Christian sermons and give instant feedback to the council of any speech that could work to inflame sectarian violence.
Dr Azab says that the members of the council are Christians and Muslims who were not just religious figures, but are scholars and intellectuals specialised in the social sciences, history, civilisation, religion, law and sharia.
Islamic and Christian values
The work of the Home of the Egyptian Family will centre on two main aspects. First is the promotion of the common values of Islam and Christianity such as truth and justice, to overcome cultural differences and antagonism, to battle poverty and ignorance, and to spread tolerance and acceptance of ‘the other’. All this, Dr Azab says, should come against the backdrop of the highest value in Christianity, which is love; and that of Islam, which is mercy. Christian and Muslim scholars will be talking of these principles in the media by referring to verses from the Bible and the Qur’an in language easy enough for all levels of society to understand.
Second, the details of sectarian incidents will be scrutinised and each case studied objectively without exaggeration or underestimation. Studies will address the real reasons leading to each incident, and whether they have anything to do with religious organisations (al-Azhar and the Church). If it is found that an incident is linked to other organisations or authorities, such as the Interior or the Education Ministry, the council will study the case and attempt to find the best answers. The Follow-up Committee will contact the organisation in question, and urge it to implement measures recommended to ensure that similar incidents do not recur. It will continue to closely follow up on the matter.
The council acted immediately after the incident in Imbaba, sending a fact finding commission to the district and recommending that the perpetrators be penalised promptly, strictly and justly.
The council’s Education Committee, according to Dr Azab, is in the process of setting up a plan for a moderate religious curriculum to be taught in Egyptian schools throughout the primary to the secondary education stages. Instead of focusing on a rote learning system as the current one, it addresses behavioural and cultural issues, in order to promote love and friendship between Egyptians, so that Egypt would go back to being one nation for all.
Most important, however, is that Dr Azab says the council will not function as a body concerned with reconciliation at the expense of justice. Egyptian security officials and local politicians have notoriously exploited the principle of the traditional reconciliation sessions by which rural or tribal communities typically solve internal problems instead of resorting to formal judicial bodies to attain justice. In case of sectarian attacks against Copts, however, such sessions were used to portray both victim and offender as equally guilty and, as such, oblige them to ‘reconcile’, thereby relinquishing all legal rights due to the [Coptic] victims. “We totally reject the traditional reconciliation sessions,” Dr Azab says.
“The Home of the Family is a supreme national organisation that believes in a State of law and civilisation,” he explains.
Nothing could be more welcome to Copts.