ROME (CNS) — The political changes spreading across North Africa and the Middle East show the people’s desire for democracy and equality, said Christian and Muslim leaders, including several from Egypt where popular demonstrations toppled the government of President Hosni Mubarak.
Speaking Feb. 23 at the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, Catholic bishops and Muslim leaders from around the region admitted they did not know exactly what the future would hold, but the grass-roots democracy movements seemed to indicate a growing recognition that when one religious or ethnic group suffers systematic discrimination, true democracy does not exist for anyone in the country.
The religious leaders, scholars and diplomats participating in the Sant’Egidio discussion about Christian-Muslim coexistence in the Middle East stood for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the recent push for democratic reforms.
Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, told the group that unlike in Egypt and Tunisia where protests were largely peaceful, in Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, “there has been horrible bloodshed … with the deaths of more than 1,000 Libyans.”
The Egyptian protests, which saw Muslims and Christians standing side by side calling for democracy and constitutional reforms, demonstrated that “the more democracy and freedom there is, the more the freedom of each individual is respected and guaranteed,” Frattini said.
Mohammed Esslimani, a Muslim theologian, was in Cairo during the protests and read from the diary he kept at the end of January and beginning of February. The diary was filled with stories of Christians and Muslims standing together in Tahrir Square and helping one another.
“I was able to live the most beautiful days of my life,” he said.
Muhammad Rifaa al-Tahtawi, who was the spokesman for Cairo’s al-Azhar University until he quit in early February to join the demonstrators, told the conference that many of the Christian-Muslim tensions and violence in Egypt were the fault of Mubarak’s government.
“A despotic regime tried to convince the Christians that they needed its protection and convince the Muslims that Christians were the agents of the West,” he said.
But when the demonstrators, mostly young Egyptians, took to the streets calling for democracy, “they forgot their rifts,” he said.
Cardinal Antonios Naguib, the Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, told reporters at the conference that the government change in Egypt was driven by the dreams of the country’s young people expressing “their desire for values like justice, freedom, peace and equality.”
A danger exists that power could fall into the hands of those who want to impose their interpretation of Islam on the whole country, he said, but those who rallied for change will not accept that easily.
In his address to the conference, he said Christians and Muslims, recognizing they share belief in one God and in the importance of prayer and of putting the precepts of their faith into practice, need to invest more time and money in projects that promote mutual understanding and concrete action to help society as a whole.
Tarek Mitri, a Greek Orthodox professor at the American University in Beirut, told the conference that people throughout the region are beginning to understand that full citizenship means not letting one’s confessional identity automatically dictate political choices.
“The lessons of modern history and the recent unexpected and powerful emergence of popular movements” across the region encourage people to recognize they are citizens of the same country largely facing the same fate, he said.
“We live in a region where civic identity is weak — it’s starting to change now, but it will require time,” Mitri said. In the meantime, educators and leaders must help the region’s people understand that citizenship is based on the individual’s importance and not on his or her belonging to a particular religious or ethnic group.
Muhammad al-Sammak, adviser to the chief mufti of Lebanon, told the conference that the Middle East is changing, but it is not clear exactly how the changes will impact the region’s Christian minority.
“Liberal democracy is advancing, but the question is: Do political freedom and religious freedom always go together?” he asked.
Al-Sammak said the answer may not always be “yes,” and he pointed to the countries of the former Soviet bloc where the post-1989 freedoms have led to a surge in secularism and materialism, not religiosity.
Pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt were very careful to focus on the fact of citizenship and on bringing Muslims and Christians together, he said, “but this does not mean that the (extreme) Islamists won’t try to hijack the process.”