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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Prized tolerance

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

Two things that Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the great Mahatma Gandhi have in common is their patriotism and commitment to fostering tolerance among the different religious communities in their respective countries. It was these shared ideals that earned the Pope a prize originally intended to honour the memory of the great Indian leader whose 125th birth anniversary is being commemorated this year.

The international award, titled UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence, is worth $40,000. According to Serge Lazarev, head of UNESCO's Tolerance and Non-Violence Committee, the prize is awarded once every two years for outstanding contributions and leadership in the field of tolerance promotion. The winner is either an individual or an institution. However, since the prize was established in 1996, it has been awarded to institutions. This is the first instance that it goes to an individual.

The prize, in the words of Tahani Omar, Egypt's ambassador to UNESCO, underlines, on the international stage, Pope Shenuda's domestic image as a man committed to promoting the values of tolerance.

"This is a man who has defended the concept of national unity and always worked toward reinforcing it," Omar told Al Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from Paris.

She added that the prize, for which the Pope was nominated by the Egyptian government, refutes the claim that discrimination against Copts is institutionalised. "It proves that his contribution for building strong ties between Copts and Muslims is acknowledged and valued by the state as well as society," said Omar. The Pope is due to arrive in Paris on 16 November -- UNESCO's Tolerance Day. He will be awarded the prize at a grand ceremony at UNESCO headquarters, which will be attended by dignitaries active in the same field.

Pope Shenouda is also well known for his unwavering patriotism. He has fiercely opposed calls by some Coptic expatriates in the United States and Canada for Washington to meddle in Coptic affairs under the pretext of protecting the rights of the Coptic minority. Pope Shenouda is one of the few Coptic religious leaders to become heavily involved in politics. Taking a firm stand on the Arab character of Jerusalem, he ordered that any Copt who visits the Holy City under Israeli occupation be denied the right to have holy communion. Moreover, he repeatedly condemned Israeli atrocities against Palestinians and affirmed that "we will not enter Jerusalem except with our Muslim brethren."

The award coincides with a plethora of activities in the French capital aimed at introducing Coptic art and culture to the French public. For the past year, visitors to the Louvre were treated to a grand exhibition of Coptic art and icons. According to Hani Hilal, Egypt's cultural attaché in Paris, the exhibition proved such a success that, instead of heading back home, it was transferred to the city of Agde -- south east of Paris -- where it will remain on display for another three months. "We wanted to show ... [the French people] that Egypt is not just about Pharaonic civilisation but there are Islamic and Coptic cultures as well," Hilal told the Weekly.

The French public also enjoyed the performances of the David Kyrollos troupe whose recital of Coptic hymns was very well received. The choir, along with a sufi troupe, will be part of the celebrations of the Pope's award.

According to Nasser El-Ansari, director of the Institut du Monde Arabe and a member of the panel awarding the prize, 63 institutions and individuals from 25 countries competed with the Pope to win the Indian-inspired award. After two days of discussions, a consensus was reached that Egypt's Pope deserved the award. "There was a near consensus that the Pope's contributions for promoting tolerance were invaluable," El-Ansari told the Weekly.

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