'A deep red line'
Pope Shenouda III is sorry for comments made by a bishop questioning the authenticity of a Quranic verse, reports Reem Leila
"Doubting religious beliefs is a red line, a deep red line. I am sorry for any hurt caused to the feelings of our Muslim brothers." So said Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, during an interview broadcast on 26 September on state-run TV.
He was expressing his sorrow for comments attributed to the secretary of the Church Synod, Bishop Bishoi. In its 23 September issue Al-Masry Al-Yom reported that Bishoi had questioned the authenticity of a particular Quranic verse, arguing that it could have been added after the death of the Prophet Mohamed.
The day after Pope Shenouda's televised apology Bishop Bishoi issued an equally conciliatory statement. "I was misunderstood and misquoted by the press. Muslims are our brothers. The teachings of the Bible and Jesus order us to respect the other," he said.
According to Al-Masry Al-Yom Bishoi told a conference -- Securing the Orthodox Creed -- held in Fayoum governorate that the verse was probably inserted into the text of the Quran during the time of righteous Caliph Othman Ibn Affan. The bishop subsequently said: "Questioning whether some verses of the Quran were inserted after the death of Prophet Mohamed is not a criticism of Islam. I was just wondering."
"Muslims are guests in this country, Christians are the original residents. Prior to the Arab invasion of Egypt, which took place in the seventh century, the majority of Egypt's population was Christian," Bishoi is reported to have told the conference. The gathering was subsequently cancelled by Pope Shenouda.
Bishop Morcos of Shubra Al-Kheima, the official spokesman of the Orthodox Church, accused the media of fanning Bishoi's ill-advised comments into a full blown crisis. "The press feeds on trivial matters. The conference was held inside a church and addressed Christians. The press misinterpreted Bishop Bishoi's speech. There is mutual respect between us and Muslims. We have co-existed amicably for centuries." he added
On 24 September hundreds of lawyers demonstrated in front of the Bar Association, chanting slogans attacking the Coptic Church and calling for Pope Shenouda and Bishop Bishoi to be put on trial. The Islamic Lawyers Association has filed a case in the Supreme Administrative Court seeking to force the church to defrock Bishoi for insulting Islam and Muslims.
Shenouda and Bishoi's apologies came a day after the Islamic Research Centre (IRC) and Al-Azhar denounced the bishop's comments as fuelling sectarian tensions. Mohamed Refaa, official spokesman of Al-Azhar, said the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, had contacted Pope Shenouda to discuss the matter. "Both," he continued, "refused the bishop's interpretation of the Quranic verse."
"Prophet Mohamed received all the Quranic verses throughout 23 years of his life from God through the Archangel Gabriel. The Quran is the unchallengeable words of God," said Refaa. "We refuse any interference with our religion, it's a prohibited area."
Against a backdrop of growing strains in Muslim-Christian relations theological conferences can easily become venues at which sectarian tensions are stoked.
IRC member Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi argues the bishop should have restricted his comments to the framework set by the title of the conference. "The event should have only been covered by magazines devoted to Christian affairs. According this conference, and other similar incidents, blanket coverage ignites tension between Muslims and Christians."
While there are significant doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity, says Bayoumi, there are many similarities between the two religions. "To allow priests or sheikhs to ignore common factors and hunt only for disparities between the two religions is a huge mistake. When religious differences become a tool used by the media to attract attention it encourages ordinary people to dip into matters which should be left to the religious authorities. This could be the spark which triggers fury among Egyptian citizens."
Minister of Information Anas El-Fiqi and the Supreme Press Council (SPC) issued statements calling on journalists and TV networks to be more accurate when dealing with sensitive topics.
"The media should treat issues that could lead to sectarian disputes and compromise national unity more responsibly," said El-Fiqi.
The SPC said legal measures designed to protect national unity should be enforced to the letter. It also expressed its appreciation for efforts made by Chairman of the Press Syndicate Makram Mohamed Ahmed to prevent newspapers from publishing items that might ignite sectarian tensions.