On the Eve of the Egyptian Coptic Christmas, A Plea for Muslim-Christian Relations

Sahar Taman was awarded the 2010 National Award for Citizen Diplomacy from the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy. Formerly Project Director for the Religion and Society Dialogue Program at the National Peace Foundation, she recently co-founded Journeys to Understanding, a citizen diplomacy organization. I was honored when Ms. Taman contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to use this space as the exclusive medium for her letter below. (Because of Ms. Taman’s prominence, a lot of Muslims will be reading this piece. If you’re a Christian [or anyone else, of course] with anything you’d like to say to those Muslims, the comments section of this post provides you that opportunity.)

Sahar's 2008 interfaith delegation on the steps of the Hanging Church in Cairo. Sahar is middle row, left. Vince Isner is middle row, second from right. To his left, with the backpack, is Mohammad.

On the eve of the Egyptian Coptic Christmas this January 7, I am in pain as I think of the Church of the Two Saints in eastern Alexandria, Egypt, the site of a New Years Day suicide bombing that killed twenty-three and wounded seventy-nine. It was the latest in a recent spate of violent attacks against Christian communities throughout the Middle East. (About ten percent of Egypt’s 80 million residents are Coptic Christians. A recent Time magazine article about the Two Saints bombing is “After Bombing, Egypt’s Christians Worship and Worry.”)

As an Egyptian Muslim who has lived outside Egypt almost all of my life, I read proclamations and condemnations of this bombing from Muslim and Christian leaders throughout Egypt and the United States. Yet, with deep sadness in my heart, I know that such condemnations will not heal the wound that this horrible event has inflicted on Christian-Muslim relations in both countries.

I can only imagine the devastation at the site of the explosion in Alexandria, a city I know well. My mother was born there; both of my parents attended Alexandria University during the 1950s, at the height of the city’s grandeur as a Mediterranean city. I have always yearned to know the Egyptian culture I missed being raised in the only Muslim family in a small town in Wisconsin. I have often inquired of my parents about their childhoods, and about their lives in Alexandria during a time when, with all honesty, they say that that sectarian tension between Christians, Muslims and Jews simply did not exist—they were all Egyptians first. (I have heard this harmonious co-existence confirmed by many Egyptian Christians, Jews and Muslims of my parents’ generation.) My mother, now in her late seventies, often and affectionately reminisces about her Christian girlhood friends; it’s clear how dearly she holds her memory of them.

But I do not know Christian Egypt only through vicarious dialogues with my parents. I know it because, in my quest to foster interfaith understanding, I sought it out for myself, found some of it, and took others on journeys to it, so that they, too, might learn of the rich religious plurality that defines Egypt. Over the years, I have taken Americans of many faith backgrounds to visit the Coptic and Protestant communities in Egypt, where we met with faith leaders and laypersons alike. Twice we attended services at the most famous and historic of the Egyptian Coptic churches, the Hanging Church in Cairo, known more properly as St. Mary’s Egyptian Coptic Church, and to Egyptians as “ElKeneesya ElMu’alaqa.” Through special permission, we were privileged to attend the Sunday service from which most tourists, restricted to only historical sites, are turned away. Due to the unique nature of our group, which consisted of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Americans, we were at first met with suspicious hesitancy. The Egyptian Coptic community has a big story to tell of their lives, both past and present—but over time they have become cautious of their Muslim neighbors, and reluctant with outsiders. The Egyptian security apparatus has a long arm in all Egyptians’ lives, and activism of any sort, even religious “activism” as benign as trying to foster interfaith dialogue, is squelched. In Egypt personal freedoms, including freedom of association, is very limited—and, sadly, even more so for our Christian brothers and sisters.

So, as in all places where communities are ginger, much is expressed in code or nuance, and one has to develop a sixth sense in order to grasp much of what is being communicated. When the senior priest at the Hanging Church, for instance, was asked by one of our group members about the status of the Egyptian Coptic community, our Egyptian translator, Mohammad, translated his answer with, “It is stable.” But I knew that what the Father meant was, “We are permanent.” He was referring to his community’s current urgent efforts to dissuade Christians from leaving Egypt, which has been the cradle of Christianity for two thousand years. But it wasn’t Mohammad’s fault that he didn’t “get” what the Father had meant to say. He had never before been in an Egyptian Christian church, and though he has Christian neighbors, had never spoken to them about their religion. Mohammad had joined our interfaith group not just as translator, but as a new devotee to interfaith dialogue. He has since kindled a friendship with his long-time Coptic neighbors.

In an article he recently contributed to a book about the interfaith travel experience, Mohammad wrote: “The wheel of violence in my country is moving and taking both Muslims and Christians into darker regions. The media has its share in creating more division. I can understand that the media would use the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ citizens in the news if their identities were essential to the story. But was does it mean to read in the newspaper that ‘A Muslim carpenter kills his Christian neighbor in a fight over parking the car,’ or ‘A Christian farmer kills his Muslim neighbor in a fight over irrigation rights’? These situations have nothing to do with their religious identities; they are only mad fights that might occur between two hot-blooded people anywhere in the world. But in such manner, the media creates more separation and a larger gap between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, who used to be described as ‘the two elements that form the nation.’”

That harmonious time is certainly now in jeopardy—and for that we have surely more than the media to blame. During one of the masses we attended, for instance, the priests, interspersing English throughout the beautiful ceremony, warned the congregation not to allow any unknown priests into their home. Christians have experienced men dressed as priests knocking on their doors, and then attacking and robbing them. When I hear such stories, I am devastated and desperate. Regardless of whether these incidents are done by horrible individuals misusing the religion of Islam by taking these vile actions in its name, or whether they are common thugs simply looking to steal, as a Muslim I cannot entirely divorce myself from what they have done. I cannot run away from the religious identities of the people who perpetrated these terrible acts. They are Muslims by some name, and so I share in their accountability. Perhaps I am not held accountable by my gracious Christian friends and neighbors; but perhaps in their hearts these inescapable acts of terrorism are also slowly building hurt, suspicion, and anger. How can they not?

What will happen when there are more and more violent incidents? How many will it take before the whole world breaks down into violence? I think of the many Christians who trusted me to take them on the immersion journeys into Egyptian faith and culture, and into other parts of the Arab world where it was often uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous for them to go. I think of the tough discussions they had with people of other faiths, of the slow but steady progress they all made toward mutual understanding and respect. I remember the mass at the Hanging Church, and how my colleague Vince Isner, a former Christian seminarian, was taken with the singing, with the wonderfully different ways of doing Christian worship. He was overwhelmed with the beauty and history of the Hanging Church, and with the welcome we received from its parishioners and laymen after their initial hesitation. Vince and I recently co-founded Journeys to Understanding, a new NGO dedicated to cultural interfaith journeys to the Muslim world. I wondered if the Two Saints church bombing on New Year’s Day would perhaps begin a rift that, over time, as violence takes its toll, would eventually force Vince to question whether or not he can continue interfaith dialogues with Muslims.

When Vince and I were discussing the bombing of Two Saints, he told me of the stinging disappointment he had recently experienced when sharing with a born-again Christian friend of his an audio recording of an ancient liturgy that he had made in the Hanging Church. His friend replied that he didn’t want to hear that “Muslim crap.” Even when told it was from a Christian mass, he “didn’t care,” he said, because it “sounded Muslim” to him.

Hanging his head as he related to me this story, Vince sadly said that while there may be only a few who are willing to strap on a belt of explosives, there seem so many who are perfectly willing to wrap themselves in layers of misinformation and hatred in order to attack the beliefs of others.

Vince is still dedicated to the cause of interfaith dialogue; and many others are responding to the victims of the Alexandria bombing with love and solidarity, refusing to vilify all Muslims. As long as there are such people in the world, there is reason to remain committed to bringing together people of all faiths and values, in order to meet one another, ask honest questions, share honest doubts, and hand in hand move toward the kind of lasting peace we can all live with.

****

See also, Evangelicals and Muslims: Both Love Jesus.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • Lilic

    Thank you, Ms. Taman, for the work you do and the thoughtfulness you bring to these issues. And thank you, John, for making her words available to us. I think the story at the end of the person who doesn’t listen to “Muslin crap” is very illustrative of one of the biggest barriers to inter-faith peace. Too many folks are taught that exposure to or even appreciation of other faiths, opinions, etc. must surely equal betrayal of your own. The fact that someone thhinks difrently from you should not be threatening, and if just listening to other ideas puts one in danger of changing one’s mind, their own opinions must be mighty precarious, indeed. Perhaps studying / considering / justifying / strenthening their own beliefs – rather than blindly swallowing what their parents / pastor have told them to believe – would help folks be less threatened and more open to the world. It sounds like Journeys to Understanding would appeal to those who are secure enough in their own beliefs, or are actively looking at alternative belief systems. But how on Earth do we reach those whose minds are closed from fear even more than outright prejeudice?

  • Rob_march

    Wow, just goes to show that wherever you are in the world, people are the same. I grew up in an evangelical christian family, in a majority Pakistani Muslim area of Manchester so I know only too well the difficulties of bringing Christians and Muslims together. When i was about 5 or 6, some of my Muslim friends just stopped being friends with me altogether because I was a Christian, and when I grew up a bit, I started to notice the ammount of Islamophobia within my church and the anti-Islamic Christian zealots and anti-Christian Muslim zealots preaching hatred on the streets. I think it’s high time that Muslims, who are meant to preach peace, and Christians who are meant to preach love, start acting on what they’re preaching towards one another instead of treating each other with fear and suspicion

  • Praying for Peace

    All the teaching of the Prophets is one; one faith; one Divine light shining throughout the world. Now, under the banner of the oneness of humanity all people of all creeds should turn away from prejudice and become friends and believers in all the Prophets. As Christians believe in Moses, so the Jews should believe in Jesus. As the Muhammadans believe in Christ and Moses, so likewise the Jews and the Christians should believe in Muhammad. Then all disputes would disappear, all then would be united. Bahá’u’lláh came for this purpose. He has made the three religions one. He has uplifted the standard of the oneness of faith and the honour of humanity in the centre of the world. Today we must gather round it, and try with heart and soul to bring about the union of mankind.

    (Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 43)

    CXI. O contending peoples and kindreds of the earth! Set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you. Gather ye together, and for the sake of God resolve to root out whatever is the source of contention amongst you. Then will the effulgence of the world’s great Luminary envelop the whole earth, and its inhabitants become the citizens of one city, and the occupants of one and the same throne. This wronged One hath, ever since the early days of His life, cherished none other desire but this, and will continue to entertain no wish except this wish. There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose. Arise and, armed with the power of faith, shatter to pieces the gods of your vain imaginings, the sowers of dissension amongst you. Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you. This, verily, is the most exalted Word which the Mother Book hath sent down and revealed unto you. To this beareth witness the Tongue of Grandeur from His habitation of glory.

    (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 215)

    http://www.bahai.org

  • Gooseberrybush

    Thank you for posting this.

  • Berkshire

    The work of conflict, of war and violence, of dropping the bombs that destroy lives and buildings and bridges is relatively easy when compared with the intense labor of *building* bridges–the infrastructure of a more peaceful world. The tasks involved with creating peace are innumerable, but I feel that yours, of improving interfaith dialog, is among the most important and I’m moved by your willingness to dedicate yourself to the task, to speak out, to act. At the heart of each faith is The Heart, and it is there we’ll find the way to peace, together.
    Do not despair in the face of obstacles such as any one individual’s ignorance or fear. Those qualities are no match for love. They burn themselves out, destroy their host, whereas love is strong, steady, enduring. It takes patience and faith (by whatever name).
    I dare say, God is on your side.
    Thank you for your good heart, and your hard work.


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