Al-Azhar admits its first Christian student, a “positive” step for Egyptian Church spokesman

Dental studies graduate Abanoub Guirguis Naeem will complete his residency in the world’s most important Sunni university. After Pope Francis’s visit, the university wants to show a face open to dialogue. For Fr Rafic Greiche, this is a “positive” step, but “it will be important to monitor developments”.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – Last month, Cairo’s al-Azhar University in Cairo officially admitted Abanoub Guirguis Naeem (pictured, in the middle), a student in dental science, for his residency at the Faculty of Dentistry.

Naeem is a Copt, a Christian minority that has recently been subjected to a series of attacks and acts of violence in the country. He is first known Christian to enter the largest Muslim institution in the Arab world.

The admission of a Christian student to al-Azhar University is a "positive" step that could have "interesting developments" not only for the university but for the country, said Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic Church, who spoke to AsiaNews about the first known case of a non-Muslim admitted in his final year of training at the Sunni institution.

"Certainly, it will be important to monitor developments,” he added, “and see how it evolves in the coming weeks, and in the near future."

For more than a thousand years, al-Azhar has trained not only physicians, engineers, and scientists but also legal scholars and imams who will preach in mosques around the world. It is known for accepting, at least officially, only Muslim students.

Naeem graduated from Nahda University, Beni Suef, Upper Egypt. In order to practice in hospitals, he has to complete a two-month or a one-year residency in a public facility like Cairo University, Ain Shams University or al-Azhar University.

“The regulations provide opening to receive applicants for the faculty’s residency program on May every year,” said Dr Khalid Siddiq, dean of the Faculty of Dentistry at Al-Azhar University, Assiut Branch. “The Christian student Abanoub Gerges Naeem applied to be enrolled in the faculty’s two-month programme. He was approved to spend the training period at the college”.

Naeem welcomed the news, not only because he is the first Christian to be admitted at the university but also because this will improve his training.

The decision to admit him could reflect the university’s desire to show the world an open face, especially after the recent papal visit and the meeting between Pope Francis and al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmad Al- Tayeb.

Recently members of the Egyptian Parliament have called on the university to show greater openness to admitting Christian students.

Al-Azhar's spokesman Abbas Shoman responded by saying that nothing prevents “Egyptian citizens from studying at al-Azhar, but the conditions for enrolment can only be met by Muslims. Will Christians memorise the Qurʾān so they can study at al-Azhar?” he asked. The “education system at Al-Azhar is not suitable for Christians”.

"Al-Azhar University has two sections: a theological one, where imams and Muslim scholars are trained; and one where other subjects like medicine, dentistry, science, maths are taught,” said Fr Rafic. Officially at least, the university "says it does not discriminate" with respect to admission, but this has not been the case so far.

"Now we have the first Christian student, and that is a good thing, a novelty that we have to monitor carefully,” the Catholic Church spokesman said. "This is a good starting point", he added, but we still have to see "if and how it will work over time.”

“Al-Azhar always wants to show the world a conciliatory face open to dialogue, opposed to terrorism, and this decision comes at a special moment. But before reaching a final judgment, let us see how things will evolve."