Is Egypt’s ‘Family House’ a model for religious coexistence?

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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In the recent Christian Islamic Forum, held at the Notre Dame University–Louaize in the town of Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, the deputy of al-Azhar grand imam Abbas Shouman called for the establishment in Lebanon of an entity modeled after the Egyptian “Family House.”

Comprised of Muslim and Christian leaders and chaired by al-Azhar grand imam and the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Family House was established in October 2011 and mainly was a response to the terrorist attack on January 1, 2011 against the Two Saints Church in Alexandria. The idea reportedly came to al- Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb even before that, precisely following the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in October 2010. Now that almost six years after the establishment of the House of the Family, a senior al-Azhar official is suggesting the it becomes a model to be emulated in Lebanon and later on in the rest of the Arab world, the question of what it did achieve in Egypt becomes inevitable.

In his speech to the attendees of the forum Shouman said that the Egyptian Family House managed to put an end to a number of sectarian disputes and to deal with the consequences of terrorist attacks. “Members of the Egyptian Family House were always quick to be present at the scene of such incidents in order to condemn all form of extremism as well as to offer support to the victims,” he said. “It also managed to highlight the close links between Islam and Christianity as a means of achieving coexistence between followers of the two faiths.”

Coptic analyst and founder of the Secular Christian Kamal Zakher Trend criticized the role the Egyptian Family House has been playing in settling disputes between Muslims and Christians in different parts of Egypt. “Such disputes are settled in a way that gives precedence to customs and traditions over the law, which means that no progress is actually made,” he said. “It is, therefore, an entity that is trying to solve sectarian problems in the same faulty manner with which they have been solved before and which makes of us more of a tribe than a state.” Meanwhile, Zakher added, the Egyptian Family House failed in what was expected to be its main duty, which is promoting the principles of citizenship and coexistence among Egyptians. “Are there any signs that sectarian sentiments among average citizens are declining?” he wondered. “I am concerned that this entity will only be a façade that hides a great deal of social hypocrisy.” Zakher’s statements followed a series of sectarian clashes that took place in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya and in which the Egyptian Family House interfered.

Coptic writer Gamal Asaad agreed that the Egyptian Family House mainly focuses on formalities manifested in constant meetings between sheikhs and priests, yet the results of those meetings are never seen on the ground. “Dialogue is essential, but it is not enough on its own,” he said. “We do not want meetings between priests and Islamic scholars. Such meetings should address citizens in streets to uproot extremism.” Asaad said that both al-Azhar and Egyptian churches need to make public any tangible steps towards making inter-faith dialogue part of everyday life.” Asaad comments were in response to Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt and which was seen by many media outlets as a result of efforts exerted by the Egyptian Family House in promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Member of the Religious Discourse Committee at the Egyptian Family House Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Naggar said that several steps are taken on the popular level to promote the values of coexistence. “This was shown in the way Christians took part in preparing public fast-breaking meals with Muslims,” he said. “This year, this was especially obvious since Ramadan coincided with the Apostles Fast so it was a spiritual time for both." Naggar added that Muslims also helped Christians rebuild the churches that were destroyed by terrorist attacks. “The Egyptian Family House also involves Muslim and Christian youths in activities that are not related to religion such as charity, sports, arts…etc. to assert that they are all Egyptians in the first place.” Father Botros Aziz, member of the Follow-up Committee at the Egyptian Family House, said that the Egyptian Family House works on changing misconceptions about the difference between Muslims and Christians through different demonstrations of unity that would gradually affect average citizens. “We make sure that people see sheiks and priests walking together in the street. That was new at the start, but now it is starting to look normal,” he said. Aziz added that the Egyptian Family House organized several meetings for youths in different governorates across Egypt to clarify the similarities between Islam and Christianity. “We explained how Islam is the religion of peace and Christianity is the religion of love.”

The latest dispute in which the Family House interfered took place in the city of Hurghada between two families, one Muslim and another Christian, and clashes resulted in several injuries. Reconciliation took place when representatives of al-Azhar and the church in the Red Sea governorate branch of the Egyptian Family House mediated between the two parties in the presence of the deputy minister of Islamic endowment in the governorate and several dignitaries. The two families initially took the matter to the police, yet later responded to the Egyptian Family House’s initiative and the conflict was resolved.

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