In recent months, one of the most authoritative religious institutions of the Sunni world has organised significant conferences within its own walls. Al-Azhar will also host Pope Francis in Egypt at the end of April. At the end of a conference, held at the end of February, in collaboration with the Muslim Council of Elders (Majlis hukama al-muslimin), and with the sponsorship of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, al-Azhar condemned the use of violence and asked people of different faiths to live together in mutual respect.
Another important meeting took place between al-Azhar and the Ministry of the Vatican for Inter-religious dialogue a week before. The dialogue between the two institutions was interrupted in 2011 for a series of reasons, especially because of Pope Benedict XVI’s words in Regensburg in September 2006, which al-Azhar considered offensive towards the whole of the Islamic world, as well as other turbulent events which have occurred in Egypt in the last four years.
This is the second time that al-Azhar has organised a conference with many different experts from around the world. The first was held in December 2005, on “Terrorism and Fundamentalism”. This time, the event focused on “Freedom, Citizenship, Diversity and Integration”. Sunni Muslims from all over the world participated, including Nepal and Pakistan, Shiite Muslims, Yazidis, Protestants, Orthodox Christians and Catholics. Many oriental patriarchs were also present: Patriarch Mar Louis Raphael I Sako on behalf of the Chaldeans, Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï on behalf of the Maronites, Patriarch Gregory III Laham on behalf of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishak. Other prominent participants were Mons. Monib Younan, Lutheran Representative in Jordan and the Holy Land, Mons. Boulos Matar, Maronite Bishop of Beirut, Mons. Elias Aude on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Christian of Beirut, various Egyptian political representatives and ministers and His Holiness Pope Tawadros II on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The conference was carried out in four sessions: the first focused on the link between Islam and citizenship, in particular on the “Compact of Medina” (a document which regulated coexistence between different groups during the times of the first Muslim community, Ed).
The second session dealt with freedom and diversity, with an emphasis on freedom of the individual, relations with other religions and the government’s duty to protect freedom and diversity. The third focused on various initiatives in both religions, on the form of experiences and challenges. The fourth regarded participation in Christian and Muslim initiatives, joint initiatives to promote coexistence and dialogue.
It was the opening session that the media focused on however. The great Imam of the Mosque, the sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, gave a speech which provoked some criticism: he stated the falseness of those who affirm Islam’s promotion of terrorism and violence, considering Christianity dealt with violence during the Crusades, as well as Judaism. His vicar expressed the same concept to demonstrate that not only Islam and Muslims are violent, but that other religions have proved to be so too, giving examples of non-Muslim terrorist groups and individuals.
The organization of these two conferences - extensively documented by the local press- thanks to the personal effort of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - certainly revealed itself a positive initiative. Despite the will within al-Azhar to find a more flexible statement, the need for a solid terrain is still immanent and I believe that the Islamic debate remains apologetic in its distancing itself from terrorism. However, these initiatives can come to change some fundamentalist minds on the long-term, promoting coexistence between Muslims and Christians.
To this end the main points of the concluding document prove interesting: the “Declaration of al-Azhar on mutual Islamic-Christian coexistence”.