Did Egypt torpedo a Muslim-Jewish meeting in Rome?

Rome’s chief rabbi Di Segni (C) visits capital’s main mosque, 13 March 2006/Chris HelgrenIt would have been a first. The imam of Rome’s mosque was due to visit the city’s synagogue on Wednesday, but unexpectedly called off the meeting on Tuesday, citing unspecified logistical problems. Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni visited the mosque in 2006, so Imam Ala Eldin al Ghobashy would have been returning the compliment. It would have been an important symbolic step forward for inter-religious dialogue, right in the Vatican’s backyard.

Di Segni told journalists there had been “alarming signals from Egypt” indicating opposition to the visit among Islamic scholars there because of Israel’s recent blockade of the Gaza Strip. Italian newspapers said the signals came from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading centre of Sunni Islamic learning. Muslim leaders in Rome denied any intervention from abroad and blamed the delay on “excessive interest in the visit”.

Di Segni has said he hopes logistical problems were “the only motives that determined what we hope is a temporary delay”. We reported the reason given by Abdellah Redouane, secretary general of the Islamic Cultural Centre attached to the mosque, because that’s how he explained the decision. We’re trying to find out more, but this kind of story is notoriously difficult to nail down.

al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, 13 July 2006/Suhaib SalemRegardless of whether al-Azhar was involved or not, there is a widespread suspicion among Italian journalists that the Middle East conflict has once again been “imported” to Europe. Look at the headlines — “Islamic veto, imam won’t go to synagogue” (Corriere della Sera), “Veto on imam, Roman Jews say it’s serious foreign interference” (La Stampa), “Roman Jews saddened by imam, the stop is serious foreign interference” (La Repubblica).

What do you think? Do some Muslims in Europe let inter-religious tensions elsewhere, such as in the Middle East, get in the way of better relations with other faiths in Europe? Or is this just an impression that headlines like those cited above create?

Is Al Qaeda’s Zawahri going YouTube?

Ayman al-Zawahri in his latest video, 17 Dec. 2007 Where did they get this idea from, the YouTube debates? Al Qaeda’s second-in- command Ayman al-Zawahri will take questions from around the world next month in a video interview. This news got buried a bit in the reporting on his latest video but I asked our correspondent Firouz Sedarat in Dubai for some more information. He says this looks like the first time that Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man will go interactive like this.

As-Sahab, the Al Qaeda online media outlet that broadcasts these videos, has asked its viewers to send in “brief and focused” questions for the elusive Egyptian. “We urge the brothers overseeing the gathering of the questions to pass them on without any changes, be they pro or con, and As-Sahab will do its best to issue the answers by Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri to these questions as soon as possible,” it said. It gave no further details about the format.

Republican candidates take questions at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, Nov 29, 2007Zawahri himself didn’t mention any Q&A in the 97-minute video, so it’s not clear if he knows about the YouTube debates in his hideout. He talks about both religious and political issues in his videos, although his statements related to security issues usually grab the headlines. Among the religious issues in the latest video was an attack of Saudi King Abdullah for meeting Pope Benedict at the Vatican last month. In an unusually fast reaction, the Vatican responded by saying he seemed afraid of dialogue with other religions.

Catholic Islam expert gives Muslim dialogue letter high marks

Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.We noted here on Monday that the unprecedented appeal by 138 Muslim scholars for a real Christian-Muslim dialogue put the focus on how the Vatican would react. The only comment from Rome so far has been cautiously positive, saying it was “very interesting” and “encouraging” but going no further. Now one of the Catholic Church’s top experts on Islam has given his analysis — and he’s impressed by what he sees.

Father Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. is an Egyptian who heads the Research and Documentation Centre for Arab Christianity (CEDRAC ) at Saint Joseph’s University in Beirut. A genial polyglot whose native language is Arabic, he is as familiar with the Koran as the Bible and has written extensively about both religions. He was one of two Jesuit professors who lectured about Islam to Pope Benedict and the pope’s former PhD students (the so-called Ratzinger- Schülerkreis) at a private meeting in 2005. He can be both critical and sympathetic in his analyses, so a positive assessment from him carries weight.

“There is a lot of good in the document sent to Benedict XVI and Christian leaders,” reads the start of his analysis just published by the Rome-based Catholic news service He also points out what he calls “gaps and elements which provoke the need for deeper reflections.” Read the whole analysis here .