- On March 7, 2015
- Africa, Copts, Egypt, Islam
By Tharwat Wahba
Muslims and Christians have lived together in Egypt for fourteen centuries, and their interactions have taken a variety of expressions across the spectrum, from hostility to dialogue. However, what has happened in the last four years is a departure from historical practices. After January 2011, Christian-Muslim dialogue witnessed dramatic changes that transformed it from being a practice of the elites to a daily street interaction.
Dialogue before January 2011
Egyptian Christians were pressured by a corrupt regime from 1952 to 2011, and they often suffered as a religious minority in an Islamic country. Egyptian Christians experienced discrimination and persecution from both the state and society. Having experienced centuries of hostility from the dominant Islamic majority, Egyptian Christians developed a “battered-minority syndrome.” Largely withdrawing from public life, they felt a sense of inferiority and suffered from a heightened sensitivity to persecution and discrimination. Furthermore, the necessary outward acquiescence to orders enforced by the majority and the lack of participation in the political decision-making process has been a profoundly humiliating experience.
Christian-Muslim dialogue is one of the practices that Egyptian Christians initiated to overcome their isolation and begin to engage in the social and political life of their country. Numerous dialogue programs have been initiated between Christians and Muslims, but they have generally been dialogues between religious leaders—that is, dialogues between elites. For example, the dialogue between Al-Azhar University1 and the Anglican Church is one of the strategic dialogues that has been maintained for many years and has contributed to more understanding between Christian and Muslim leaders. The Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) has held many meetings over the years between Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders, resulting in numerous publications. The Coptic Orthodox Church has also established its own forums for dialogue, where both Christian and Muslim leaders meet for official occasions such as “The Breakfast” (Iftar) during Ramadan. Likewise, numerous international nongovernmental organizations and church groups have sought to study Islam and foster dialogue between the two religions.
While dialogue programs were an important expression of Christian engagement in society before January 2011, there were also reasons for concern. All dialogues have been initiated and financed by Christians. Furthermore, these dialogues tended to concentrate on issues where there was common ground between the two religions, but they failed to discuss contentious theological issues. Unfortunately, these dialogues also occurred almost exclusively between elite scholars and leaders, with little to no impact among the common people or upon public debate. Moreover, the relationships between Christians and Muslims were not influenced by these kinds of dialogues. Hostility, polemics, and misunderstandings remained common among people in the street.
See more of Dialogue in Egypt: From Elite to the Street.