Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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In quest of greater understanding

By Gamal Nkrumah

The head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, began a two-day visit to Egypt on 23 November -- his second in an official capacity. Archbishop Carey said he has an especially soft spot for Egypt because his very first trip abroad was to this country when he was posted for 15 months, between 1954 and 1956, to work as a wireless operator with the British Royal Air Force. "As a newly recruited cadet, I was youthful and very impressionable and the wonder and beauty of Egypt made a lasting impression on me. Before I ever set eyes on Scotland and much of northern England, I had seen Egypt," Carey told Al-Ahram Weekly. Soon after his sojourn in Egypt, he was posted to Iraq for nine months. "I am very fond of the Middle East region and I am very sympathetic to the aspirations of the people of this part of the world," he added.

The highlight of Archbishop Carey's visit was a meeting behind closed doors on 24 November with Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, and other prominent Muslim scholars. Tantawi concurred with Carey's suggestion that an Interfaith Committee for Dialogue and Cooperation immediately be set up. The committee is modelled along the lines of a similar committee established by Al-Azhar and the Vatican to strengthen ties and deepen understanding between the Roman Catholic Church and Islam.

Al-Azhar's deputy Imam, Fawzi El-Zifzaf, was nominated by Tantawi to head the Egyptian side of the Interfaith Committee, while Ali El-Samman was nominated as his deputy. They are to coordinate activities with their Anglican counterparts, headed by Bishop Richard Marsh. Officials of Al-Azhar and their Anglican opposite numbers are to meet on a regular basis. The Archbishop said that "the purpose of my visit was to explore ways of encouraging more understanding and mutual respect between the Islamic and Christian faiths."

The closed meeting at Al-Azhar was followed by an open lecture in which Archbishop Carey paid tribute to the late Grand Imam Gad El-Haq Ali Gad El-Haq. The lecture, his second in four years at Al-Azhar, was entitled "Dialogue of Understanding." A coterie of intellectuals and religious and community leaders, including the Minister of Al-Awqaf (religious endowments) Mohamed Hamdi Zaqzouq and Pope Shenoudah III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, were present.

The main thrust of Archbishop Carey's message was to challenge exclusivity and strengthen ties between Christianity and Islam. He drew attention to the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots, both within the same country and between rich and poor countries. "It must be noted that the gulf between rich and poor is widening and the rate of population growth has led to increased numbers of people living in abject poverty," he said. Carey also questioned the reasoning behind the use of sophisticated technological advances to produce ever more lethal weapons of mass destruction. "The same species that has such genius to create the atom and create the silicon chip is the same animal that can use such genius to create the atom bomb and poison the planet. We are informed that well over 50 wars are going on in our busy, small planet," the Archbishop added. But as an eternal optimist and a good Christian, Carey still insisted that "as people of the Book,...we cannot conceive of a world that is perceived as God-forsaken."

Carey conceded that "Christology is a stumbling bloc to other [non-Christian] believers," but he made no apologies for what he so strongly believes in. "For us Christians, the particularity is Jesus Christ, whom we worship and to whom we bear witness. For Muslims, that is, I know, something you cannot countenance." But, Carey stressed that he had great "respect and appreciation of Islam: its devotion, its commitment to prayer, its concern for the poor and the welfare of all."

Due to his extremely tight schedule, the Anglican Archbishop met with the Coptic Pope in Al-Azhar because Carey was unable to pay an official visit to Pope Shenoudah in the Coptic patriarchate. Still, the question of Muslim-Christian relations was briefly touched upon and the two Christian religious leaders agreed that even if there were concerns among Egypt's Coptic Christian community over alleged discrimination and intimidation in certain sections of society, it was not for the Anglican Archbishop to interfere. They also agreed that these issues are best resolved through interfaith dialogue in an exclusively Egyptian context.

The Archbishop, who left Egypt in the evening of 24 November, headed for Amman to attend an interfaith conference. He has written extensively on the subject of interfaith dialogue and among his works are I Believe in Man (1975), God Incarnate (1976), The Great Acquittal (1980), The Church in the Marketplace (1984) and The Meeting of Waters (1985). He presented his latest book as a parting gift to the sheikh of Al-Azhar.

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