Carrying the slogan “Together”, a trip to the Suez Canal on a recent Friday morning was organised jointly by the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Mosque and the Church of St Georgeos in Abu-Taqiya Street in Shubra, Cairo. Some 100 men, women and children from among the congregations of the church and the mosque, together with their respective priests and imams, boarded two buses and headed together to their destination.
On the journey the participants were introduced to one another; after which came, for entertainment, a round of quizzes, poems, and songs in which everyone took part. Brief talks on national unity were delivered by the elders of the mosque and the church.
Once at the Suez Canal site, Brigadier-General Amr Shalaby, an officer from the Armed Forces and a supervisor of the Suez Canal project, volunteered a detailed explanation of the new plans for the Suez Canal, and what has already been achieved on that project. The trip ended with a show of Simsimiya, the folk dance for which the Canal towns of Port Said and Ismailiya are famous. By that time it was already evening, time for the buses to head back to Cairo.
Interacting out of the box
“The trip is the firstfruit of a year-long joint endeavour that attempts to promote close, informal interaction between Muslims and Copts in the neighbourhood,” Fr Yacoub Hanna of St Georgeos’s told Watani. “It is not meant for older people who grew up in a more mellow and tolerant Egypt before the age of religious fanaticism and terrorism that is overtaking the entire world today. Rather, we are targeting the younger generations who are bombarded with hate language propagated by religious fanatics and extremists every day over the media and social networking Internet sites.”
Fr Yacoub promised that more such joint visits are in the pipeline. The schedule includes trips to the Hanging Church in Old Cairo; the Egyptian, Islamic, and Coptic museums; the Saladin Citadel; and many more. “What better way to bring people together than a good day spent in cultural activity and entertainment? That’s how they can get to know and respect one another better, and grow strong personal bonds.”
Sheikh Saeed Ahmed Abdul-Hadi Imam, sheikh of the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Mosque and the general manager of its endowment committee, agrees. “It’s an honour to cooperate with the heads of the church,” Sheikh Imam says. “We Egyptians are tied through friendliness, love, and understanding. This is what we inherited from our forefathers. The young men and women who grew up under the present-day culture of ‘difference’ need to be made aware of this. With love and cooperation, we can manage to overcome many difficulties that now prevail.”
“Interestingly,” Sheikh Imam added, “the late Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, former Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, once mentioned that his Christian neighbour rescued him from drowning, and when he needed a blood transfusion the only donor he found was a Christian friend.”
Open to all
Dr Waheed Abdel-Gawwad, head of the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Association, spoke about the association’s medical and social services which, he said, were available to Muslims and Christians alike. He praised the effort of the joint trip and said it was through such practical measures that national unity could be fostered, not by mere lip service.
“We will never forget that it was our Muslim neighbours who defended our Church against Islamist attacks once the Muslim Brothers were toppled in July 2013,” Fr Kyrillos Shaker said. “On the other side of the coin are people like my father who collected donations to build this mosque years ago.”
Zareef Danial, a retired headmaster, said the trip did indeed bring closer the Muslims and Christians who participated in it. “It answered many questions lurking in some people’s minds about the ‘other’,” he said. “At the end of the day, the youngsters especially could see that religion did not make people different; they were all the same. This was an important fact for Muslims to see since, being in the majority, they might have less or sometimes no chance of dealing closely with Copts. Conversely Copts, who are in the minority, can never lead their lives without interaction with Muslims; they thus know them well.”
Mr Danial feels certain that such trips or common activity can have a profound effect on children and youngsters.
Magdy al-Shahba, the mastermind behind the interaction experience, told Watani: “We are endeavouring to make a joint administration between the mosque and the church. We are also planning to use the third floor of the mosque to hold cultural courses to be accessible to all the neighbourhood’s residents.”
What better way?
As the buses carried the Muslim and Christian congregations back to Cairo at the end of the day, the general mood was one of relaxation and happiness. Apart from the joy of seeing for themselves the national mega-project of the new Suez Canal come to life, the time spent together in the outdoors had indeed brought them all—Muslims and Copts—closer. A few more such trips and it would not be at all easy for any of them to believe that one of the ‘other’ religion could deliberately bear him ill-will. What better basis for national solidarity? What better way to accept—no, embrace—the other?
3 June 2015