The Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian Church in Egypt. About 10 percent of the 90 million people living in Egypt belong to it. Coptic Catholic and Coptic Evangelical denominations are small minorities within this Christian minority. According to Kades, while Al-Azhar and the two smaller Coptic Churches indicated a willingness to engage in dialogue, the Coptic Orthodox Church was only moderately interested. For this reason, only individual representatives of the Coptic Orthodox Church have taken part in the activities so far. He hopes that in time, interest will grow.

The situation for Baha'is in Egypt is precarious because they are not a recognised religious community there. Initially, there were major reservations about Baha'is within the Abrahamic Teams, says Kades. This only changed after a number of meetings. Now, a professor from the Dental Faculty at Cairo University represents Baha'is in the Abrahamic Teams.

Dr. Tharwat Kades (photo: Hesse Forum for Religion and Society)
Dr. Tharwat Kades was born in Mallawi / Egypt and studied Protestant theology in Cairo. Dr. Kades has belonged to the Evangelical Church of Hesse and Nassau (EKHN) since 1973 and was interreligious commissioner in the Dean's Office of Dreieich for more than 25 years

As in Israel, meeting people from other faiths is not par for the course in Egypt. In the past, the various religious denominations have lived more or less peacefully alongside each other. Problems arise in rural central and southern Egypt in particular, where denominational and social conflicts quickly merge and sometimes escalate. In such cases, attacks on Christians often follow. "We have to go into the villages," says Kades. "That is where the problems are, not in Cairo."

So far, 60 church schools – in Cairo, Fayoum, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut and elsewhere – and, since 2019, three state schools in Ismailiya and a city in the Nile Delta have been won over for the initiative. For church schools, it is a completely new departure for a Muslim to come and talk about Islam. To Kades' disappointment, the state schools' reaction to the offer was very reserved. However, he hopes that in time, the Abrahamic Teams will reach more of them.

Addressing prejudices openly

The Abrahamic Teams start by talking to the religion and social studies teachers about the project. Then they discuss it with representatives of the parents. It is only when parents, the school management and teachers are on board that the teams talk to the pupils. But, says Kades, the teams have not reached that point yet. Overcoming fear and reservations is a painstaking process that takes patience.

Lots of prejudices are voiced during these meetings. Christians often claim that Muslims are false and devious, while Muslims often hold fast to the stubborn notion that Christians believe in three Gods. The only way to dispel such prejudices is to talk openly about them.

In Morocco, the interfaith atmosphere is more open than it is in Egypt. There is a Jewish community in the country, which has been invited to get involved in the Abrahamic Teams project. Initial contact has also been made with representatives of Islam. In January 2019, a first event with high-ranking representatives of Christianity, Judaism and Islam took place at the University of Rabat. The media interest was high. The project coincides with a renewed interest in Judaism in Morocco.

There are plans for an "Abrahamic Caravan", which would see young Jews, Christians and Muslims organising events in a number of different places this year. Contacts have already been made with communities in Tunisia. However, interfaith dialogue is not possible all over the Arab world. It is not only war-torn countries like Syria that are not involved. In Lebanon too, the denominational divisions are so deep that despite their best efforts, initiators were not able to organise a single interfaith meeting.

Claudia Mende

© 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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