"Islamic extremists exerting pressure"
The Coptic Catholic Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut in Upper Egypt spoke recently about the relationship between Christians and Muslims and between Catholic and Orthodox Christians in Egypt. He was interviewed by Volker Niggewöhner of the international Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need at its German national office in Munich.
Aid to the Church in Need:
There are more Christians in Egypt than in any other country of the Middle East. Yet despite the this they are only a tiny minority compared with the Muslims. What are relations like between Muslims and Christians?
The relations between us are generally good. There are few problems. Nevertheless, in recent years Islamic fundamentalism has become stronger. The Islamic extremists cause problems for us Christians principally by putting pressure on the authorities to hinder or prevent our church building projects.
Two years ago, during his visit to Egypt, Pope John Paul II met with the great Sheikh of the Al Azhar mosque, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi. Did this meeting with one of the world's highest Islamic authorities have any effect?
Yes. Mohamed Tantawi is a good man and an open human being. He is striving very hard to improve the atmosphere between Christians and Muslims and is having a calming effect on the radical Islamic forces. He is highly regarded by everyone, including us Christians. Tantawi also condemned the terrorist attacks of 11 September in a joint declaration with the Vatican. It was stated in this declaration that only justice and mutual respect can provide a true basis for peace.
ACN: So is the dialogue between Christians and Muslims working then?
BW: Yes, indeed. Committees from Rome frequently travel to Egypt and hold talks together with the Coptic Catholic Church and the representatives of Islam. This dialogue is highly regarded, at least in the Egyptian media. We Coptic Catholics are striving to show the people of Egypt that the Catholic Church has a heart open to other religions. This attitude has won us real respect from the Muslims.
ACN: During the Pope's Egypt trip there was also a meeting with the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Shenouda III. Did this encounter bring our two Churches closer?
BW: The relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Coptic Catholic Church continues to be a difficult one. A few years ago the dialogue was stopped by Shenouda III because it was alleged that we Coptic Catholics would try to woo away Orthodox believers. However, since the meeting between Pope John Paul II and Shenouda III - the first such meeting between the highest authorities in the two religions since the great Church schism in 451 - things are now moving again. Just recently, a delegation from the Coptic Orthodox Church travelled to Rome to hold talks with the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. We Catholic bishops in Egypt are striving very hard for ecumenism. We want to continue offering the opportunity to Orthodox and Muslim children to attend our Catholic private schools. We are only a small group within the Christian minority in Egypt and we have no wish to woo away other believers. In any case we have too much respect for the teaching of the Orthodox. But unfortunately there are still many reservations on the part of the Orthodox with regard to us Catholic Christians.
ACN: What are the other problems for Egyptian Christians?
BW: Like many Christian communities in the Middle East we are suffering from emigration by our members. Many of our faithful have emigrated to the United States, Canada or Australia. They are seeking a better future for themselves and their children. These emigrants are among the most able and hard-working pillars of our society. The presence of Christians in the Middle East is important for the establishment of a fraternal, just and united society.
Some 94 per cent of Egyptians profess Islam, while 6% are Christians. The Coptic Catholic Church is one of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches that are in full communion with the Catholic Church in Rome. It has 7 dioceses and around two hundred thousand faithful and is one of the smallest Catholic communities in the Middle East.