The leader of Islam’s most important university and also the Egyptian mosque by the same name, Al-Azhar, has offered to renew relations with the Vatican. The olive branch came with a note: first Pope Francis should publicly declare that “Islam is a peaceful religion.”
The Muslim world severed ties with the Catholic Church in 2006. Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned this spring, discussed an incident in which Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, was described as a warmonger who spread evil teachings. The Muslim world did not like that. Relations resumed a few years later, but were broken off again in 2011, when Pope Benedict publicly denounced the bombing of a church in Alexandria, Egypt. More than 20 people were killed in that bombing, and nearly 100 additional church goers were wounded.
Ahmed al-Tayeb is the grand Imam of al-Azhar and also the president of al-Azhar University. Through his diplomatic envoy, Mahmour Abdel Gawad, al-Tayeb made an overture to Pope Francis. He explained that Islam does not have a problem with the papacy, the problem was with the prior pope. Gawad made it clear, however, that the first step to re-establishing the relationship had to be taken by the Vatican. He said,
Francis is a new pope. We are expecting a step forward from him. If in one of his addresses he were to declare that Islam is a peaceful religion, that Muslims are not looking for war or violence, that would be progress in itself.
But given that the break with the Catholic Church was over Islam’s violent persecution of Copts in Egypt, the Copts understandably suggest that it is wholly within al-Tayeb and his followers’ ability to mend the breach. The Copts are a persecuted minority in Egypt, thousands of whom are fleeing their Egyptian homeland because of that persecution.
The Voice of the Copts is an American and Italian-based organization of Copts which opposes the spread of global Islam. The Copts are the largest Christian sect in Egypt, and they constitute approximately 15 percent of the Egyptian population, and they date back to the era immediately following the death of Jesus.
The Copts do not see themselves as Arab, but instead as non-Arab descendents of the ancient civilization of Egypt, who are Christian.
Within days of al-Tayeb’s offer to restart relations with the Catholic Church by imposing a precondition on Rome, an organization called Voice of the Copts offered an alternative: al-Tayeb should instead
issue a formal, public statement directed to his followers in the Arabic language conveying an unequivocal message that Muslims attacking Christians in Egypt do not conform to a tenet of Islam and will no longer be tolerated. A clear denunciation of Muslim sectarian violence against Christians in Egypt by Sunni religious leaders would be welcomed as Al-Azhar seeks the Pope’s endorsement of Muslim non-violence.
Dr. Ashraf Ramelah, founder and president of Voice of the Copts, an organization made up of many thousands, said that it is up to Islam’s leaders to ensure that the religion’s followers are peaceful, because at the moment Islam is “a religion that many around the world see as warmongering and violent.”
Al-Tayeb had suggested that if Pope Francis intended to visit Egypt to meet with Pope Tawadros II, the pontiff should also come visit with him at al-Azhar.
Pope Tawadros traveled to Rome and met with Pope Francis last month. It was the first meeting between leaders of the two churches in 40 years.
While the head of al-Azhar said he would look forward to meeting with the head of Church of Rome, he said that he was not interested in a sit-down with all three heads of the world’s main monotheistic religions, an idea that had been floated by the Vatican. He said Al-Azhar “will not take part in any meeting with Israelis.”
Sadly enough, the current Coptic Orthodox Pope, like the last, is at one with al-Tayeb on this point. He continues the position his predecessor had of opposing normalization with Israel. He said in November, 2012, shortly after his election, that “We won’t encourage Copts to visit Jerusalem, as we can’t accept the idea of Copts selling out the Arab cause.”
When The Jewish Press asked Dr. Rameleh about this point, he responded in an email, saying, “I can’t say enough about how disappointed we are that Pope Tawadros II followed in the footsteps of Pope Shenouda II before him on the issue of Israel. There is no excuse for this at all. Voice of the Copts is clear on standing against this ‘Arab cause’ position and the boycott of travel to Israel.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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