Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Salman’s historic visit

A Saudi monarch met for the first time in history with a grand mufti of Egypt and the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, reports Michael Adel

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The historic visit to Egypt by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz has revived the hopes of Arab countries in renewed possibilities for resolving the mounting crises that have swept the entire region due to the spread of terrorism.

The visit simultaneously underscored the strong and close ties that bind Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the official and popular levels, putting paid to sceptics and ill-wishers who sought to stir tension between the two countries.

King Salman’s visit occasioned the first talks between a Saudi monarch and a grand mufti of Egypt and the patriarch of the See of St. Marks —Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb and Pope Tawadros II. In addition to his visit to Al-Azhar, the king also delivered a historic speech to the Egyptian parliament.

In his talks with Al-Tayeb, King Salman discussed ways that Al-Azhar and Saudi Arabia could work together to disseminate centrist religious thought, fight extremist thought and promote peace throughout the region. Al-Tayeb took the opportunity to express how warmly Al-Azhar, its scholars, students and staff welcomed the visit and praised the efforts that King Salman was exerting in the service of the Arab nation.

The Saudi monarch received Pope Tawadros II at his residence in Cairo in the first-ever meeting between a Saudi king and the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The meeting was attended by Saudi Minister for Islamic Affairs, Awqaf (Religious Endowments) and Daawa (Proselytising) Sheikh Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheikh, Minister of State and cabinet member Musaed bin Mohamed Al-Eiban, Finance Minister Ibrahim bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Asaf, and Minister of Trade and Industry Tawfiq bin Fawzan Al-Rabie.

Pope Tawadros II welcomed King Salman to Cairo and stressed that his visit reaffirmed the bonds of brotherhood and affection between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He also expressed his gratitude to the king for the care his country gives to Egyptians working in the kingdom.

King Salman spoke of his memories of past visits to Egypt, mentioning for example how impressed he was by the Egyptian magazine Al-Hilal (The Crescent), the monthly cultural and literary journal that has been published in Cairo for more than a century.

During this unprecedented meeting, which lasted around 25 minutes, the pope and the king discussed various political and national affairs. “Your visit has brought good to Egypt,” Pope Tawadros said. “We thank you for your stances and your support for our cherished country, Egypt.”

The king replied, “I am pleased to have met you. It is an honour for me to sit with an enlightened man of faith.”

 During their conversation, they discussed the subject of religious tolerance and religion as essentially a relationship between an individual and God. The pope noted that Egyptians, as a whole, have lived in love and harmony for countless centuries and that the Coptic Church maintains good relations with all.

In the final moments of the meeting, one of the Saudi ministers in attendance invited the pope to visit Saudi Arabia. “God willing,” he said. “Everything under heaven has its time.”

Following the meeting, the pope attended a dinner banquet at the Saudi Embassy with the Saudi monarch, along with senior Egyptian officials and members of the Saudi delegation accompanying the king.

Church leaders have described the meeting as a landmark of change in the relations between the church and Saudi Arabia. They said that discussions in the meeting addressed religious values in society and how Christian and Muslim clergymen can contribute to promoting dialogue among members of society.

Since becoming patriarch of the See of St. Mark, Pope Tawadros II has sought to strengthen relations with Saudi Arabia. Early on, the pope made an unprecedented visit to the Saudi Embassy in Cairo, where he met Saudi Ambassador Ahmed Al-Qattan.

While the details of the visit have been kept confidential, it has been revealed that the reason for it was that the pope wanted to express his gratitude and esteem for the historical positions that the custodian of the two holy mosques had taken toward Egypt and to affirm that the Egyptian people will never forget the genuine nobleness of the kingdom.

Following the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, the pope said, “King Abdullah was a man of great wisdom and discerning vision. We live at a time in which we need wise people. His passing is a great loss for the Arab nation and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the loss of a dear and noble friend of the Egyptian people.”

He added that he would always remember how Abdullah had stood by Egypt during the 30 June 2013 Revolution and the support and assistance that Saudi Arabia offered.

The bishop of Shobra Al-Kheima, Father Morqus, who was present at the dinner banquet, said in a statement to the press that the meeting between the pope and King Salman “was evidence of the good relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia”. He added, “It has sent a powerful message to the whole world that Egypt and the Kingdom have a historic bond that is stronger than any attempts to divide the two countries.”

When asked why Salman had not visited the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, Father Morqus replied, “That is a question to be directed to the Saudi king, not to the church.” He stressed that the relationship was improving.

Hani Aziz, a prominent businessman who was present during the meeting, said that the meeting “was truly historic. It testifies to the close relations between the two countries”. Noting the positive affect it would have on both “great peoples”, and especially those residing in Saudi Arabia, Aziz added, “We anticipate that the relationship will grow closer than it has been during the past years.”

In the opinion of Fadi Youssef, founder of the Coalition of the Copts of Egypt, “The results of the meeting were fruitful and demonstrated the goodwill between the sides. I hope it will be a realistic step toward Saudi observance of Christians living in Saudi Arabia and the need to build houses of worship enabling them to exercise their intrinsic rights.”

It was also Youssef’s belief that the Egyptian government could no longer “marginalise the role of religious institutions, whether Al-Azhar or the church, as previous regimes had done. This became evident in the patriotic activities since the meeting of national forces on 3 July 2013, in which the fall of the fascist Muslim Brotherhood regime was announced.”

Princess Basma Al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family who had made an unprecedented visit to St. Mark’s Cathedral to meet Pope Tawadros’ predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, said at that time: “Pope Shenouda, who is noted for his international status and his famous tolerance and kind-heartedness toward all people, was keen to promote rational interfaith dialogue, which is the role of the Egyptian church.”

The first meeting between a Saudi monarch and a pope took place in 2007 when King Abdullah met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican as part of his European tour. During their talks they discussed how to protect religious and moral values, the Middle East conflict, the political and religious situation in Saudi Arabia, the importance of interfaith and intercultural dialogue, and the contributions that affiliates of all faiths have made to the promotion of mutual understanding between different peoples and societies.

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