Thursday, 19 January 2006

Respect at the heart of inter-faith initiative

A visit to Ireland this week by four key Muslim leaders shows that Muslims and Christians can work together for justice and peace, writes Patrick Comerford

Mount Sinai is a holy mountain for the three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is here that all three faiths believe God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and that the prophet Elijah hid in a craggy crevice.

At the foot of Mount Sinai, St Catherine’s is one of the most important monastic foundations in the Orthodox Church, dating back to the earliest days of Christianity.

In 635 AD, the monks of Mount Sinai sent a delegation to the Muslim prophet Muhammad, asking for his protection. A document preserved in the library at St Catherine’s, with his handprint, promises that Muslims would protect the monks and respect the Christian character of the monastery. The mutual respect of Jews, Muslims and Christians for each other in Egypt is reflected in the veneration of the tomb of the prophet Daniel in a mosque in Alexandria, and the uninterrupted presence for the past 10 centuries of a mosque in the heart of the monastic complex on Mount Sinai.

The Christian presence in Egypt traces its roots to the very beginning of the Gospel stories. Christians make up 10 per cent of the Egyptian population and there are more Christians in Egypt today than in all other Middle East countries together. In recent years, the al-Azhar Institute in Cairo and the Anglican diocese of Egypt have been to the forefront in initiating Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Al-Azhar is both a mosque and a university. Dating back to 969 AD, it is one of the oldest universities in the world and the pre-eminent place to study the Koran and Islamic theology and jurisprudence. Its Grand Imam is Egypt's senior Islamic figure and holds one of the world's most respected positions in Sunni Islam. Statements by the faculty of al-Azhar, including fatwas or religious rulings, carry worldwide authority among Sunni Muslims.

On the other hand, the small Anglican church in Egypt is a minority within the Christian minority.

However, according to the Bishop of Egypt, Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, one of the key goals of his church is “to be a bridging church with other denominations and faiths” – a bridge church between the churches in Egypt and a bridge between Christians and Muslims, facilitating dialogue. One of the most exciting new ventures in inter-faith dialogue has been the series of bilateral talks in Cairo, Alexandria, London and Doha organised by the faculty at al-Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff at Lambeth Palace. Their talks have been wide-ranging, including scripture, justice, violence and the place of women in society.

Four years ago Archbishop George Carey and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Dr Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, signed an agreement acknowledging “our common faith in God” and a “responsibility to witness against indifference to religion on the one hand and religious fanaticism on the other.”

Speaking in al-Azhar recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, urged people of faith not to use the name of God to justify violence and injustice and said: “The greatest challenge today for our world is how to react to circumstances in a way that is faithful to God’s will … Once we let go of justice, fairness and respect in our dealings with one another, we have dishonoured God as well as human beings. We may rightly want to defend ourselves and one another – our people, our families, the weak and vulnerable among us. But we are not forced to act in revengeful ways, holding up a mirror to the terrible acts done to us.”

As part of this process of Christian-Muslim dialogue, the Church Mission Society Ireland recently facilitated a visit to Egypt by two Irish bishops – Archbishop John Neill of Dublin and Bishop John McAreavy of Dromore.

This week Christian and Muslim leaders who have been at the heart of inter-faith dialogue in Egypt are paying a return visit to Ireland. Bishop Mouneer is travelling with three key leaders from al-Azhar: Shaykh Dr Ali Gomma Mohamed Abdel Wahab, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and rector of al-Azhar University, and Shaykh Fawzy el-Zefzaf and Dr Ali El Samman, president and vice-president of al-Azhar’s Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions.

During their visit, they will meet President McAleese, Archbishop Eames of Armagh, Archbishop Neill of Dublin, and Christian and Muslim communities in Dublin and Northern Ireland.

On Saturday they will speak at a public forum in the chapel of Trinity College Dublin, and on Sunday, Bishop Mouneer will preach in Christ Church cathedral and at the “Discovery” service in St George’s and St Thomas’s.

For the large Muslim community in Ireland, the visit is an opportunity to show that Muslims and Christians can respect each other’s core beliefs and values and work together for justice and peace. For Christians, the visit is an opportunity to show that dialogue is at the heart of the church's mission.

Rev Patrick Comerford is southern regional co-ordinator of the Church Mission Society Ireland. theology@ireland.com

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Thursday, 19 January 2006