Top Sunni Islam authority al-Azhar halts dialogue with Vatican

January 21, 2011

al-azharThe highest authority of Sunni Islam, the Islamic University of al-Azhar in Cairo, has frozen all dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church over what it called Pope Benedict’s repeated insults towards Islam. Benedict this month condemned attacks on churches that killed dozens of people in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, saying they showed the need to adopt effective measures to protect religious minorities.

(Photo: Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, July 13, 2006/Suhaib Salem)

His remarks followed a New Year bombing outside a church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria that left 23 people dead and dozens injured and prompted demonstrations by both Christians and Muslims against sectarian violence. The pope urged Christian communities to persevere in a non-violent manner in the face of what he described as “a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target”.

Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council “reviewed in an emergency meeting on Thursday the repeatedly insulting remarks issued by the Vatican Pope towards Islam and his statement that Muslims are discriminating against others who live with them in the Middle East,” al-Azhar said in a statement. “The council decided to freeze dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican for an indefinite period,” it added.

pope diplomatEgypt’s government last week dismissed the pope’s remarks as “unacceptable interference” and summoned its Vatican ambassador back to Cairo for consultation.

(Photo: Pope Benedict greets an Arab diplomat to the Vatican after calling for protection of Christian in Muslim countries, January 10, 2011/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said on Thursday that al-Azhar’s move would not change the Vatican’s “policy of openness and desire for dialogue” with Islam. The freeze came a few weeks before the next scheduled meeting of the Joint Committee for Dialogue of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Permanent Committee of al-Azhar for Dialogue among the Monotheistic Religions.

Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s 79 million population, which is mostly Sunni Muslim. Sectarian violence sometimes erupts over disputes on issues related to church building, religious conversions and interfaith relationships.

Reacting to al-Azhar’s decision, Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, wrote in an editoral on Friday: “The Council of the University of Cairo al-Azhar, (the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam) has shown that it has dramatically misunderstood the intervention of the Roman Pontiff who, in demanding protection for the Coptic community, has spoken for the whole of Christianity and not just for the Catholic Church.

copt attack“The Pope never asked for any preferential treatment for “his own people”, but guarantees of freedom and security for all, including Muslims. It is a helping hand, not a closed fist. The influential intellectuals of al-Azhar should be the first to understand this and explain it to the ‘umma,’ the community of Islamic believers. We have long dared to hope for a fatwa, a decree against the killings of defenseless Christians, (that is to say) a solemn act in harmony with the Pope’s appeals to all those who believe in God to never kill in His name and to follow the ways of peace. We continue to hope for it.”

(Photo: Egyptian Copts survey damage after an arson attack on their property in Qena, 700 km (435 miles) south of Cairo, January 9, 2010/Asmaa Waguih)

At the Catholic news agency, editor-in-chief Fr. Bernardo Cervellera has some interesting background to the al-Azhar decision. Like Radio Vatican, he noted that the freeze came only a few weeks before the planned annual meeting of scholars from the Vatican and al-Azhar. “In the run up to a meeting that should have taken place in the coming weeks, the Islamic University had requested that the Vatican remove one person in particular from its delegation: Fr. Khaled Akasheh, from Jordan, an expert on Islam, a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who to date had been in charge of relations with the Islamic University,” Cervellera wrote. “The Vatican pointed out that in prior arrangements for dialogue, it is written that each delegation has the right freely to choose its members. But Al-Azhar had insisted that if his name is not removed, it would interrupt dialogue.”

blue mosqueCervellera said al-Azhar might not want the Vatican delegation to include an Arab. It could also be acting in line with efforts by President Hosni Mubarak to curry favour with the Egyptian people by accusing the Vatican of interfering in internal affairs, he said.

(Photo: Pope Benedict prays in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque with Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, November 30, 2006/Salih Zeki Fazlioglu)

“Will the rest of the Muslim world follow the line of the ‘splendid’ Sunni university?” he asked. “In our opinion it is not likely. Al Azhar, which is funded almost entirely by Saudi Arabia, is representative of a very traditional Islam and is seen by many Islamic institutions as ‘too dusty and outdated’.”

(Reporting by Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Philip Pullella in Vatican City and Tom Heneghan in Paris)

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