Rome (AsiaNews) - The decision of Al Azhar to "freeze" dialogue with the Vatican continues to surprise and pain Egyptian Christians. The spokesman of the Coptic Catholic Church, Fr. Rafic Greich has expressed regret over the Islamic University’s decision and his hopes that dialogue will resume. Vatican figures above all hope that Al Azhar will not miss the meeting with representatives of world religions in Assisi in October, wanted by Benedict XVI to remember the 25 years since the first meeting - at the time of John Paul II - and revive the "spirit of Assisi".
Unfortunately, Al Azhar and the Egyptian government continue to criticize the pope's words who – they maintain - asked the Western governments to defend Christians on New Year’s day. In addition, they accuse the pope of only being concerned for Christians and of not taking to heart "the violence faced by Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan".
In fact, the pontiff's words were: “the threatening tensions of the moment and, especially, before the discrimination, abuse and religious intolerance that today are striking Christians in particular (cf. ibid., n. 1), I once again address a pressing invitation not to give in to discouragement and resignation. I urge everyone to pray so that the efforts made by various parties to promote and build peace in the world may be successful. For this difficult task words do not suffice; what is needed is the practical and constant effort of the leaders of Nations, and it is necessary above all that every person be motivated by the authentic spirit of peace, to be implored ever anew in prayer and to be lived in daily relations in every environment”.
The satellite channel al-Jazeera, and many Western media short circuited in their titles, summarizing the words of Benedict XVI in a "The Pope calls on Western governments to defend the Christians in the Middle East." In short, a new kind of crusade.
It must be said that throughout the past few weeks and several times, Card. Antonios Naguib, head of the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of Egypt, publically explianed the true meaning of the pope’s words. A Catholic delegation, headed by Greek Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III, has visited Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, Minister of Waqfs (Islamic Religious Affairs), to hand him the Arabic translation of Benedict XVI’s address and clarify the ambiguity caused by al Jazeera that "attempts to sow confusion and stir relations between Egypt and in particular Al Azhar and the Catholic Church."
According to Fr. Greich, Al Jazeera deliberately turned the papal declaration into a "request for Western governments to protect Christians," while the pope only asked local governments to protect all citizens from terrorism.
A week ago, another Catholic delegation - including the auxiliary bishops of Alexandria, Mgr. Youhanna Golte and Mgr Boutros Fahim, along with Fr Greich - visited the Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad Al Tayyib to present him the actual statements of the pope and shed more light on Al Jazeera’s manipulation thereof. At the end of the encounter Al Tayyib and the delegation agreed that Al Azhar would publish a statement on their meeting.
"Instead of the press statement - said Father Greich - we were shocked by the announcement of the freezing of dialogue between Al Azhar and the Vatican”.
The growing feeling among experts is that the freezing of the dialogue between the Vatican and Al Azhar is a smokescreen to conceal Egypt’s responsibility for the Alexandria attack. From the very start the Egyptian government denounced "foreign hands" behind the massacre of Christians, stressing that "Christians and Muslims in Egypt are one nation."
This declaration of innocence is not totally true. In fact, the Christians in Egypt face discrimination on many levels (construction of churches, repairs, employment in public positions, etc. ..). Moreover, the government has one nothing to stop the growth of fundamentalism and fanaticism, which are the bedrock of terrorism.
From this point of view, in the aftermath of the attack in Alexandria, the Catholic Church has made a series of requests of the government (new laws on religious buildings; restructuring of the school curricula to erase discrimination, fair trials and the imposition of sentences for those who encourage fanaticism ,..).
Instead, the government continues to favour the track of foreign terrorists, and is slow to address the problems of discrimination within its own borders.
To a certain extent, Egypt is behaving like many Western governments. These, too, after the bombings in Baghdad and Alexandria, cried terrorism, failing to realise that the crux of the problem of Christians safety lies within governments that prefer to sacrifice the followers of Jesus, rather than risk unhinging the Muslim world. Thus they do not help religious freedom, on the contrary, the leave the door open for fanaticism.
On the other hand, Western governments should not be invoked to launch wars and sanctions, but to strengthen cultural dialogue, to support education (an area that is becoming increasingly controlled by al Qaeda), to suggest effective reciprocity.
Under the shadow of this shameful situation of political inanity, both Eastern and Western, the real value of the meeting in Assisi and its "spirit" becomes increasingly relevant. As in the days of John Paul II, in no way does it want to be seen as a sort of "UN of religions", a watered-down syncretism of identities. Rather, the global meeting aims to be a symbol.
Its "spirit" wants to emphasize two elements: that religion and religions are not a problem for the world, but a resource. That they can live together and are not destined towards an inevitable clash of civilizations.
In this sense, the Assisi proposal aims, as a positive gesture, to counter the problems which undermine global peace as identified by the Pope; terrorism and secularism. The first because it uses violence to impose one religion, the other because it marginalizes the religious energies of society, reduces freedom of religion, and humiliates the dignity of all persons to the material dimension alone.
(André Azzam collaborated)
 See AsiaNews.it, 07/01/2011 A quiet Coptic Christmas, but fundamentalism and anti-Christian discrimination must still be tackled.