04/28/2017, 18.14
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Al-Azhar conference in Cairo tries to decouple Islam and violence

by Fady Noun

Egyptian president al-Sisi forcefully backed the meeting to fight the ideology of the Islamic state. Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Tanta says that terrorism has to be fought with peace. Violence binds fundamentalism and relativism. Qur'anic exegesis remains a problem.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – Peace is a sacred task. As Jesus taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God," said Rev Jim Winkler, secretary general of the National Church Council of Christ in the USA, the first speaker to take the floor and open the Al-Azhar International Peace Conference. Suddenly, the latter took on a metaphysical dimension. Rev Olav Fyske, secretary general of the World Council of Churches, followed the US clergyman in the same spirit, expressing the same concepts.

Meeting in the multipurpose hall of the Fairmount Hotel, participants from the four corners of the Muslim world, including far-flung China, appear to be, as Jesus put it when he saw the crowds that followed him, “like sheep without a shepherd”. They represent a vulnerable world subject to violence, on the margins of abundance, stripped of its rights, plagued by poverty, dominated, exploited, marginalised. Today this hall was the mountain where Jesus spoke his Beatitudes. Whether they are doctors of the law or ignorant, sedentary or migrants, the planet’s overfed or poor, fathers and mothers in tears, everyone is an orphan of peace, looking for a way out of the hell of hate and violence in which the world has fallen unsure on how to get out of it. Participants represent about 560 million Muslims in the world.

"Hope, only our shared life can give it," said Coptic Orthodox Bishop Bola on behalf of Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of nine million Orthodox Copts, who was in Kuwait until yesterday but is on his way back to meet the pope. "It is not we who are not living in Egypt," said the patriarch, "but it is Egypt that lives in us. What’s the point of praying in churches without a homeland? It would be best to pray in a nation without churches," Tawadros added. These words are full of patriotism, as opposed to the resigned mind-set that dwells in us. with boldness and abnegation, the Coptic Orthodox Church is promoting a culture of outreach and endurance. Although things might be changing now, persecution has long been its daily bread.

"I come from Tanta, scene of the attack on the Palm Sunday in which 28 people died and another 95 were wounded," Bishop Bola said. "We respond to violence with palm leaves and olive branches,” he explained. “The palm tree is the symbol of the height of conquest and glory. We shall face off violence and terrorism with peace." He called on governments that fund war and on arms traders to give up their hypocrisy, adding that he prays to see "the sources of Takfirist thinking and terrorist financing dry up."

Poverty, ignorance, the extreme injustice inflicted upon Palestine, and the duplicity of the Bush administration were cited as elements of frustration and violence. "Development is the new name of peace, Pope Paul VI said in the 1970s. Fifty years later, these words have not lost their topicality."

These themes came back throughout the morning. Al Azhar Grand Imam Ahmad el-Tayeb and the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew gave their address. The latter came to Egypt to meet his "brother" Francis, this afternoon. Bartholomew himself has become a spokesman for "global peace" and praised "the courage and vision of this global initiative" that led the al-Azhar imam to convene the conference. He noted pertinently that in lieu of the post-modernity exalted by some champions of the bloated industrial world, with "the explosion of religious affiliation” post-secularity has come to the fore rather than disappear.

The Patriarch of Constantinople sees an irreducible opposition in the pair fundamentalism/relativism. He rightly pointed out that the terms of this contradiction are violence, although one is active, whilst the other is "cold". In his view, "fundamentalism is a form of zeal that is not based on truth, [it is a] false religiosity”. As the audience applauded, he reiterated that "Islam is not synonymous with violence" and that "peace can be achieved only through voices of peace." This is radical. He ended his address by saying that to meet to the eager expectations of peoples, religion must be based on four pillars – freedom, justice, solidarity, and compassion – noting that this needs a world-wide effort to succeed.

Grand Imam Ahmad el-Tayeb also took the high ground to talk about a problem that haunts President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's mind, and spurs him daily to fight more vigorously against the ideology of the Islamic state. A pessimist, the dour-faced grand imam noted that "history is a succession of wars intertwined by brief periods of peace, not the other way around."

Hence, are war and violence humanity’s destiny? Going against this, the grand imam said "If the Christian God and the Muslim God are the same, he cannot contradict himself on essential things, like mercy, and peace." Still, in concluding, he defended the Qur'anic passages on war, noting that in Islam, "the use of violence is codified" and "war is strictly defensive, never offensive." Words that left Christian exegetes unsatisfied.

Caution thus governed the topic of exegesis. We know how much Muslims are reluctant to submit the Qur‘an to historical and critical analyses. Some will say, and with good reason, that "a bad interpretation leads to a bad interpretation of the other," an in some cases, to violence, to the extent that the other becomes "the ontological enemy." Varying in quality, none of yesterday's lectures approached the theme from a different perspective. All of them aimed at penetrating the ideological, political and religious vortex that is jolting the world in the present-day maelstrom.

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