THURSDAY
February 24, 2000
volume 11, no. 39
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NEWS & VIEWS     Acknowledgments
Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales and International Dossiers, Daily Dispatches and Features at ZENIT International News Agency. CWN, NE and ZENIT are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provide this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

PAPAL TRIP TO EGYPT WILL GIVE IMPETUS TO UNDERSTANDING WITH ISLAMIC WORLD
Christians Are Victims of Fundamentalist Violence

    CAIRO, FEB 22 (ZENIT).- John Paul II is travelling this week to Egypt, a country of Muslim majority that plays an important role in the Middle East peace process. When he meets with religious and civil authorities -- President Hosni Mubarak will welcome him at the airport -- he will address the future of this region, where the roots of Christianity run deep.

    The Holy See is concerned for Christians in the area. At present, they are increasingly marginalized in the Arab world, and even in the Holy Land. Consequently, the Vatican calls for the guarantee of their inalienable rights. President Mubarak seems to be in agreement: "The time has arrived for Muslims, Christians and Jews to live in peace in the region," he has stated on several occasions.

    In particular, Catholics in the Middle East are very pleased with statements made by Egypt's Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, an Islamic authority, who last November declared himself in solidarity with the Christian community opposed to the Islamic fundamentalists' insistence on constructing a mosque in Nazareth, a few steps from the Basilica of the Nativity.

    The darkest note is the marginalization that Muslims impose on Christians as regards public offices. This situation has led to situations of extreme tension. The Orthodox Copts, who are the great majority, and Catholics are opposed to fundamentalist pressures to introduce harsh Islamic laws, including amputation of limbs for theft and capital punishment for apostasy. In the summer of 1998, in the village of El Kosheh in Upper Egypt, some 1,000 people were savagely tortured by the police. At the beginning of this year, 20 persons violently lost their lives in the same village.

    Given the situation, the Pope's visit to Egypt will be of decisive importance for the dialogue with the Islamic world. The Holy Father is arriving 15 days after naming a Permanent Observer to the Arab League (a historic agreement that has gone virtually unnoticed by the world media), and after signing an agreement with Yasser Arafat, which lays the foundations for religious liberty for Catholics in the future State of Palestine -- an agreement that was protested by Israel.

    As the Vatican agency "Fides" states, fundamentalism erupted in Egypt in the 70s, first among Muslims and later among Christians. Above all, this is a sociological phenomenon -- a response to social changes: the crisis in the Arab world, the transition from a "soviet-style" to a market economy, and modernization. In face of such problems, the typical Egyptian -- famous for his openness and jovial hospitality, has withdrawn into himself. Ahmad Bahaeddine, a journalist, wrote 15 years ago: "I don't understand what is happening. Why does Egypt, which has been able to transform ('Egyptianize') Christianity and Islam, foster differences today? Why is the accent put on differences rather than on our common past?"

    At present, and for many years, authorities are severely repressing extremism, but at the local level constant incidents occur. All Christian churches in the country are guarded by police. But this action is symbolic, and would be virtually useless if an attack took place.

    Although Islam is the official religion, the government tries to play down antagonisms. The official press always emphasizes coexistence and publishes Christmas messages of religious leaders; Pope Shenouda III, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is invited to all ceremonies.

    At the political level, the small Christian representation in Parliament prevents the influencing of legislation, which provokes Christian rejection of political commitment, increases electoral abstention -- which in Egypt reaches almost 50% (during the Nasser regime, participation was almost 100%).

    Relations between Christian and Muslim intellectuals are good, as they are united in the struggle against fundamentalism. In this sense, the culminating moment of the papal visit to Egypt will be John Paul II's meeting with Imam Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Al-Azhar, in "Dar al-Islam" (House of Islam) -- an unprecedented event. Sayed Tantawi is the highest Muslim authority in Egypt and a point of reference of the old University of Al-Azhar, which is one of the country's principal religious poles. The Vatican and this university have created a Joint Commission for Dialogue between Christianity and Islam. ZE00022203

          

February 24, 2000
volume 11, no. 39
NEWS & VIEWS

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