ROME (CNS) — Egypt’s Christian minority looks toward the future with hope for greater freedoms for all citizens but continues to have some fear that the revolution will be hijacked by Muslim fundamentalists, said the Vatican’s nuncio to Egypt.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the nuncio and former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, spoke about the state of Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt just hours before Christians and Muslims clashed in one of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, leaving at least 12 dead and hundreds injured.
The revolution that led to the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February and to promises of greater freedom brought young Muslims and Christians to the streets together, Archbishop Fitzgerald told Catholic News Service in Rome May 6.
The young people of both faith groups were asking for greater freedom and for social reforms that would ensure the country’s development and progress would benefit more than just Egypt’s wealthiest citizens, the archbishop said.
“The Catholic Church and the Christians in general go along with those demands and, of course, there were Christians and Muslims together demonstrating,” he said. “The other side, the downside of it, is the fear of the Christians that this revolution, which was not at all religious in its claims, its demands, has been taken over by Islamic fundamentalists in certain ways.”
“There is hope and yet there is a degree of anxiety,” he said in the interview the evening before violence broke out in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood. The clashes reportedly began outside St. Mina Orthodox Church, where several hundred Salafi Muslims gathered, claiming a Christian woman married to a Muslim man was being held there against her will. The violence spread to other Orthodox churches in the neighborhood.
The Salafis are a Muslim sect dedicated to the spread of what they believe is traditional, Orthodox Islam, including in the political life of predominantly Muslim countries.
Archbishop Fitzgerald said Catholics and other Christians are waiting to see the direction the country takes, particularly once elections are held in September and work begins on revising Egypt’s constitution.
Like members of the special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, which was held at the Vatican in October, the archbishop said he and Egypt’s Catholic bishops are encouraging the country’s Christians to get involved in the political process, “playing their role in society without fear, giving their own testimony.”
The official Catholic-Muslim dialogue in the country is that conducted by Cairo’s al-Azhar University and the Vatican.
But the Muslim clerics of al-Azhar announced in January that they were suspending the dialogue.
Archbishop Fitzgerald said the decision was based on “the Holy Father’s statements about his concern for Christians generally in the world and particularly in Egypt after the bombing of the church in Alexandria (in December) and this was taken as a form of interference. But if you examine the statements carefully, this is only appealing to the government to look after their citizens and not saying we are going to intervene in anyway.”
“We hope this will blow over eventually,” the archbishop said.
At the same time, he said, dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Egypt continues on a local level.
“The young people whom I mentioned who are engaged in revolution are Christians and Muslims together. And that dialogue on the question of human rights, of citizenship has been going on for quite some time. This is not an official religious dialogue, but it’s a dialogue between Christians and Muslims as individuals, as citizens,” he said.
In a speech May 6 at the Lay Center in Rome, Archbishop Fitzgerald said official dialogue meetings are “only valid if they are at the service of the dialogue that is going on all the time around the world.”
The meetings of theologians, scholars and religious leaders must be “an example and a stimulus” to people in parishes and mosques around the world, he said.
“The real dialogue is the dialogue of living in peace and harmony together, living in friendship together, working together,’ the archbishop said.
Contributing to this story was John Thavis in Rome.