C.R.S. Program in Egypt to Help Muslims, Christians Avert Strife

CAIRO (CNS) — Select Muslims and Christians in Egypt are participating in a development project designed to avert further sectarian violence after a surge in clashes between the two religious groups.

The U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services is sponsoring the two-year initiative, which engages Muslims and Christians in implementing public works for the sake of the entire community.

“Some of the root causes that have led to … the recent sectarian violence were related to a lack of understanding or a lack of respect for one another, so bringing people together to collaborate is even more critical at this time,” said Erin Atwell, the CRS staffer overseeing the $800,000 initiative, “Tolerant Attitudes and Leadership for Action.”

She said the project’s English acronym, TALA, was the source for its Egyptian name, “Ta’ala,” which is the command for “come” in Arabic, Egypt’s national language.

“It’s like an invitation to come over [and] work across religious lines” on joint projects that improve areas prone to sectarian strife, or where such Muslim-Christian conflict has occurred in the recent past, said Atwell, CRS program manager for interfaith action and civil society capacity building.

She spoke to Catholic New Service during a meeting of the Ta’ala steering committee.

Atwell said Ta’ala project money was now funding the selection of different Christian and Muslim community leaders across Egypt as well as their training in models and methods for identifying, analyzing and intervening in potential conflicts.

Those same leaders will then select and train Muslim and Christian youth in their areas and collectively come up with ideas of what development projects their different communities need most, which Ta’ala will then pay to implement, said Atwell.

“Groups of youth, who have been working for at least six months in the project learning to work together to collaborate on a common vision, then go out into their own communities and conduct a needs analysis of their individual villages. It could be anything from youth seeing that they need to paint some buildings in the community, to deciding that they want an initiative with children in some schools to raise awareness about interreligious collaboration,” Atwell said.

She said the Ta’ala project started in October, two months after some of Egypt’s worst Muslim-Christian violence in modern history left dozens of churches burned, destroyed and looted.

The project builds on “lessons learned” from a 2012 CRS project that was led by Egypt’s Coptic Catholic Church but did not involve any Muslim organizations in its implementation, she said.

Atwell said that, unlike the 2012 project, which lasted only three months, Ta’ala will last two years and will be implemented jointly by the Coptic Catholic Church; Nour al Islam, an Egyptian Muslim nongovernmental organization; and Family House, an interreligious dialogue unit of Egypt’s highest seat of Sunni Muslim learning, Al Azhar University.

Abdel Rahim Mohamed Gaad, a Muslim and Nour al Islam member involved in the Ta’ala leadership training, said the program taught him skills in teaching “coexistence, peace, tolerance and conflict resolution,” which he would soon be sharing with selected town and village leaders in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Luxor, where he lives.

“We are focusing in the areas where there have been Muslim-Christian divides, and we will work to bring those communities together,” he said, adding that some of the leaders had already spoken of the activities they hoped to undertake with local youth using the Ta’ala funding.

“One of the ideas emerging is to bring [Muslim] youth on bus trips to visit some of [Egypt’s] famous churches, or monasteries, so they see for themselves that there are no arms inside and that the people inside are good, praying and doing nothing to harm Islam,” Gaad told CNS.

He said they plan to take Christian youth “to some of the historic mosques, so they know that these places are for prayer, and not for incitement and violence” against Christians.

Rushdy Sobhe, a Coptic Catholic who also lives in Luxor and is involved in the project’s training there, said that some of the selected leaders he had met expressed similar ideas about wanting their Muslim and Christian youth to visit each other’s different places of worship.

“Another prominent idea is that the [Muslim and Christian] youth repaint together both a mosque and a church in their different villages and towns,” he told CNS.

Sobhe said the Ta’ala project came at “the right time” in Egypt because the popular revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the country’s ensuing attempts at democracy led not only to heightened insecurities and a general increase in violence, but also to new freedoms of expression that included the unprecedented right to openly acknowledge sectarian troubles in the predominantly Muslim nation of more than 80 million people.

“There is much fear now, but also much truth and frankness,” he said.

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