“A historical visit,” said Kadri Abdelmottaleb, head of Protocol of al-Azhar University. He tells Sir about the “rising expectation” for the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt (April 28-29) during which he will meet the Great Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib (the highest Sunni position) and he will participate in the International Peace Conference promoted by this Sunni University. “There is a great expectation for this visit,” says Abdelmottaleb. “Many delegations are expected to come from several Middle Eastern Countries and from the rest of the world, and we are organizing a welcome for everyone. Pope Francis – he adds – is a man of peace and we will welcome him with great honor.” The Conference will be one of the central moments of the apostolic visit of the Pope in Egypt and it takes place in the aftermath of a series of attacks claimed by the IS against venues of Christian worship. The most recent one, last night, when a group of terrorists of the Islamic State (which claimed the operation) attacked the monastery of St. Catherine on the Sinai Mountains, one of the symbols of Christianity in the Middle East. An agent, who was guarding the monastery, died, and four others were injured. “Terrorism has no religion nor homeland,” says Ambassador Abdel Rahman Moussa, Counselor of the Grand Imam for External Relations. Al-Azhar (which literally means “The Luminous”) is located in the heart of Cairo. It is considered one of the oldest universities in the world and is one of the major religious teaching centers of Sunni Islam. Its elegant buildings stand out in a popular city like Cairo. Ambassador Moussa welcomes us in his office with great kindness. While he is answering our questions, staff members come in and out. They are working very hard. We can feel in the air the expectation for an event on which al-Azhar has invested so much.
Why an International Conference on Peace?
First, I would like to recall the meeting of the Grand Imam in the Vatican last year with His Holiness. During the meeting, he announced that al-Azhar would hold a conference of all religious leaders to go in depth in the dialogue among the world religious leaders, promote a common understanding among the different religions, and make an appeal to all world leaders to do their best
to work together, fight terrorism, and reject any form of extremism.
This is why we organized this Conference and we invited Pope Francis.
Who are the participants?
We invited over 200 personalities from all over the world. There will be delegates from al-Azhar and representatives of the major Middle Eastern Churches to reinforce, as I said, the dialogue among us. We are all called to work together and we are all partners in seeking peace.
The Conference takes place at a time of high tension. Yesterday we heard of another terrorist attack on St. Catherine, claimed by the IS and carried out in the name of radicalism. How does al-Azhar respond to this challenge of terrorism?
Terrorism has no religion nor homeland. No religion in the world can approve the killing of people.
Al-Azhar has issued a statement of strong condemnation of these terrorist acts committed against all, against our Christians in Egypt and all over the world. Terrorism does not distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims; it aims to terrorize people and create a climate of instability. We are very aware of this, and we are trying to counter this ideology and these kinds of actions that are totally against Islam and all kinds of religion. We are working hard to contrast these acts.
You are a university. What efforts are you making so that the Koran is not interpreted incorrectly but, instead, it is increasingly understood according to a modern interpretation?
I would not use the word ‘modern’. These people take some verses and completely extrapolate them from the context of the Koran and our Prophet, and they interpret them erroneously according to a completely wrong thought and belief. The efforts we are making at al-Azhar to counter these drifts are steady and strong, and they date back long ago. We have more than two million students attending our pre-university educational institutions and 500,000 university students, including 40,000 foreign students from 120 countries. We guide all these students towards the right direction, towards the right way of thinking. This approach to teaching turns al-Azhar into a center of moderate education and a correct understanding of Islam in the world. At Al-Azhar we teach all the currents of thought and religion. For this reason, the students who graduate here have a broad vision of life and can think and judge with their own mind.
Who is Pope Francis for you?
He is one of the major leaders who can guide the world towards peace and security.
This is why we have decided to re-open our dialogue because we consider him a moderate leader and a man of peace, and these are our very goals. This is also the reason why we have decided to work together with him. We hope that this Conference will bring light to this sad time we are experiencing, affected by these acts of terror throughout the world.
Pope Francis often referred to a Third World War in bits, and to how important it is to make efforts to avoid it. Will the Peace Conference issue a final declaration?
Yes! There will be a final statement that will appeal to peace around the world. It will urge all to stop any act of terrorism in every part of the planet. We hope to work together, al-Azhar and the Vatican, for peace.
How can Muslims help Christians enjoy full citizenship and full rights?
Christians and Muslims have lived together for over 1,400 years and never – as has been witnessed – there have been religious clashes. If some problems arose, and only recently, these were just related to politics. We have always lived together. We have had many Christian personalities in our society and in our history, such as one of the highest diplomats, Mr. Boutros Ghali (born in a Coptic Family, editor’s note). We are sad about what happened in the past few weeks. We celebrated the very same events with our Christian brothers. This is why this Conference is important and why we will launch an appeal for peace to all political and religious leaders. Al-Azhar and Pope Francis together for peace. We strongly believe that we will make it, Inshallah!