Breaking Down Walls? A Friar’s Summer in Egypt

Michael Calabria Features

Michael Calabria spent most of June and July teaching at a seminary in Egypt, witnessing firsthand the conflicts between Christians and Muslims. He shares with HNP Today his thoughts on the subject.

ALLEGANY, N.Y. — Several more courses of brick have recently been added to the walls enclosing the St. Leo the Great Coptic-Catholic Seminary in Ma’adi, a quiet Cairo suburb. The front gates, which bear the ancient Egyptian symbol of life (adopted by the Copts as their cross), are being sheathed in sheet metal to prevent anyone from looking in or out. 

Some say these changes to the walls and gates are necessary because of the tensions with the Muslim community following Pope Benedict’s now infamous remarks about Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. Whether the higher walls and obtrusive gates are necessary, they are an apt metaphor for what is happening in and to Egypt’s Christian communities. Christians are retreating behind walls real and religious, and have little interest in looking beyond them at their Muslim compatriots, some of whom they fear, many of whom they will never know. 

It is certainly true that there has been an increase in the tensions and clashes between Muslims and Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox community in recent years. These usually take the form of brawls sparked by property disputes or verbal barbs. Certainly, as a more conservative Islam continues to gain influence and spread in Egypt, at least in part a reaction to the policies of the (ostensibly) Christian West, anti-Christian sentiment is growing in spite of the fact that for the better part of 14 centuries, Egypt’s Muslim and Coptic communities have co-existed in relative peace. In the nationalist struggles against the British occupation at the turn of the last century, Egyptians carried flags emblazoned with the Crescent of Islam and the Cross, signifying the unity of Muslims and Christians against injustice. 

But if anti-Christian sentiment is on the rise in some areas, so is anti-Muslim sentiment gaining strength among both Coptic Orthodox and Catholic communities. This became evident to me not only in conversations with the Catholic seminarians I teach in Cairo, but also from my conversations during a recent visit to the city of Minya. 

Thriving Communities with Religious Tensions

Located 245 km south of Cairo, Minya was often at the center of Muslim-Christian violence during the 1990s. In fact, it has only been in the last few years that unescorted foreigners were allowed back in the area. While in Minya, I met a 14-year-old girl named Sara. She belongs to a prominent Coptic-Orthodox family, and while she is out in public, she is watched hawkishly by her older sister, lest she act in a way that would bring shame on the family. Sara confided to me that her parents have forbidden her from having Muslim friends. Even though Sara has expressly told them that she and her Muslim girlfriend Nura do not discuss religion, her parents have not allowed the friendship to continue for fear that their daughter will convert to Islam. 

Visiting a Coptic Orthodox or Catholic Parish in Egypt would make any pastor in the West envious. Every evening, children and young adults crowd into church yards to play volleyball and soccer while parents look on and socialize until late at night. But these thriving communities are contained and circumscribed by walls that discourage and prevent substantive interaction with Muslims. In a visit to a Coptic Catholic parish, a university student majoring in English told me that she has no Muslim friends. Her pastor, educated in Rome in Islamic studies, could not find one neutral, let alone nice, comment to make about the local Muslim community whose mosque is located directly across the street from his church. He only complained about the loudness of the speakers that blast the call to prayer out over the village. 

Seminarians, both Orthodox and Catholic, are “educated” about Islam, not to understand the faith of more than 90 percent of their fellow Egyptians, but to discredit it. When my Egyptian students at the seminary hear of my visits to Cairo’s historic mosques, they shake their heads in disapproval and call me Muslim — not intended to be a compliment. No wonder the walls of the seminary are being raised. 

I wonder why my students haven’t met or spoken to Muslims like the cabdriver Muhammad, employed frequently by the teachers at the seminary. Last year, Muhammad accompanied me to the tomb of the al-Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan whom Francis met in 1219. There, he and I prayed side by side, Muslim and Christian, after I related to him the story of Francis’ encounter with the Sultan. Since then, we have called one another “brother.” I wonder why they haven’t met or spoken to Muslims like the woman I met on the Metro who spoke to me sweetly and sincerely, blessing me when she heard me decrying the war and loss of life in Iraq to a fellow passenger, even as her daughter pointed to the small Coptic cross tattooed on my wrist.

michael at al-aqmar72JpgBeauty of Historic Mosques
I wonder why the seminarians refuse to acknowledge the serene beauty of Cairo’s many historic mosques. But I know the reasons for all these things. It is the walls; the walls that Christian communities have put up, and refuse to move beyond, whether out of fear, prejudice, pride, or prohibition. 

While Egyptian Christians have legitimate concerns and complaints about a kind of systemic prejudice (not persecution), they also have reasons to be hopeful and engage their Muslim neighbors in a more open and positive fashion. There is a movement under way in Egypt that, for lack of a better term, has been called “Qur’anist.” It’s a kind of Islamic reformation that proposes greater dependence on the text of the Qur’an rather than on the often-contested and problematic hadith (alleged sayings by the prophet Muhammad). While some of the Qur’anist proponents have been arrested, this movement is a sign that change is in the air. Even among more radical Muslims, change may be evident. Recently, the imprisoned founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Sayed Imam el-Sherif, declared to his followers that violence and aggression in the name of God is unacceptable. 

Signs of Hope
There are still other signs of hope. This summer I made frequent trips to Islamic Cairo to see the many newly-restored medieval mosques. I was often accompanied by my friend Adel. As a Coptic Catholic, he had never visited these magnificent and historic edifices. Yet, with each visit, his interest and enthusiasm grew, and it wasn’t long before he was taking photographs along side me, or asking passers-by to take our picture in front of the mosques. By the time I left Egypt, Adel was taking his own Christian friends on excursions into Islamic Cairo. It seems I had taught more than English this summer – and it wasn’t behind the walls of the seminary. 

— Fr. Michael is vicar at the St. Bonaventure University Friary.