Muslims urged to address religious misconceptions


Muslim World League (MWL) Secretary-General Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov arrive at the Grand Mosque in Grozny, Chechnya. (Photo/Supplied)

  • Monopolizing righteousness an intellectual danger, says Al-Issa
  • Russia was chosen as the site of the summit because it has been a model of religious and ethnic harmony in recent years

GROZNY: The Islamic nation has endured the negative and dangerous impact of classification and exclusion, including takfir, said Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL), during the Friday sermon at the Grand Mosque in Grozny, Chechnya.
In a first in the history of Russia, the Muslim World League (MWL) launched an international conference in Moscow on religious peace and coexistence.
The MWL conference promoted values of coexistence and peace, and emphasized the importance of “working in the common humanitarian and national circle.”
The sermon delivered by the MWL chief was attended by the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, senior muftis and scholars, and a large gathering of worshipers.
Al-Issa highlighted that “there are young men who, in their diversion, got caught up in the illusion of their superficial knowledge, which is neither firm nor based on the teachings of scholars and, thus, had the nerve to declare other believers as non-believers (takfir), fueling great sedition.”
He added: “Every time one sedition dies, another rises, revealing its horns in the name of Islam. It believes no one is right except its prodigal followers. Not only that, but it took upon itself to fight all others after having declared all the people on Earth as non-believers.”
“And similar to those are the people who monopolized righteousness in place of discretion and claimed that people were denied access to the truth except through them.”
Al-Issa pointed out that monopolizing righteousness in the place of discretion is a systematic error and an intellectual danger that jeopardizes the harmony and unity of the (Islamic) nation.
“The problem is not limited to the narrative of this tragedy, which has damaged the reputation of the Islamic nation, but extends to every person who was privileged with extensive knowledge in Islamic sciences yet did not fulfill his duty in combating the wrongful ideology, especially in dismantling its structure,” he continued. “This ideology was not based on a military or political entity, as you know, but on misguided concepts that exploited the passion for religion in the youth that lack knowledge and wisdom.”
Al-Issa said: “We do not exaggerate when we say the amount of carelessness, sedition and misguidance is proportionate to the amount of the scholars’ failure, and part of this failure is a lack of addressing the misconceptions and fabricated concepts about Islam.”
Al-Issa stressed in his sermon that good behavior and common decency are instinctively well-received by all people, and that convenience and tolerance with positive open-mindedness are in the core of our Islamic concepts, highlighting that Shariah’s purpose is to establish mercy and tolerance, not difficulty and hardship.
“Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had delivered the message, fulfilled his mandate, advised the (Islamic) nation, strived for God as he ought to, invited (mankind) to the way of God with wisdom and fair preaching, did not assault anyone, and did not force anyone to follow his religion,” he said and quoted a verse from the Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion.” [2:256]
Russia was chosen as the site of the summit because it has been a model of religious and ethnic harmony in recent years, according to the MWL.

This article was first published in  Arab News

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Preachers of Hate: Arab News launches series to expose hate-mongers from all religions


Clockwise, from top-left: American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane, Saudi cleric Safar Al-Hawali, US pastor Terry Jones, Egyptian preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Australian white supremacist terrorist Brenton Tarrant, and Yemeni militia leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi.
  • Daesh may be defeated, but the bigoted ideas that fueled their extremism live on
  • Campaign could not be more timely, with a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes since Christchurch attacks

RIYADH: Dozens of Daesh militants emerged from tunnels to surrender to Kurdish-led forces in eastern Syria on Sunday, a day after their “caliphate” was declared defeated.

Men filed out of the battered Daesh encampment in the riverside village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border to board pickup trucks. “They are fighters who came out of tunnels and surrendered today,” Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Jiaker Amed said. “Some others could still be hiding inside.”

World leaders hail Saturday’s capture of the last shred of land controlled by Daesh in Syria, but the top foreign affairs official for the semi-autonomous Kurdish region warned that Daesh captives still posed a threat.

“There are thousands of fighters, children and women and from 54 countries, not including Iraqis and Syrians, who are a serious burden and danger for us and for the international community,” Abdel Karim Omar said. “Numbers increased massively during the last 20 days of the Baghouz operation.”

While the terrorists have a suffered a defeat, the pernicious ideologies that drive them, and the hate speech that fuels those ideologies, live on. For that reason Arab News today launches Preachers of Hate — a weekly series, published in print and online, in which we profile, contextualize and analyze extremist preachers from all religions, backgrounds and nationalities.

In the coming weeks, our subjects will include the Saudi cleric Safar Al-Hawali, the Egyptian preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane, the Yemeni militia leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, and the US pastor Terry Jones, among others.

The series begins today with an investigation into the background of Brenton Tarrant, the Australian white supremacist who shot dead 50 people in a terrorist attack 10 days ago on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Tarrant is not just a terrorist, but is himself a Preacher of Hate, author of a ranting manifesto that attempts to justify his behavior. How did a shy, quiet boy from rural New South Wales turn into a hate-filled gunman intent on killing Muslims? The answers may surprise you.

Our series could not be more timely — anti-Muslim hate crimes in the UK have soared by almost 600 percent since the Christchurch attack, it was revealed on Sunday.

The charity Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), which records and measures anti-Muslim incidents, said almost all of the increase comprised “language, symbols or actions linked to the Christchurch attacks.”

“Cases included people making gestures of pointing a pistol at Muslim women and comments about British Muslims and an association with actions taken by the terrorist in New Zealand,” the charity said.

“The spike shows a troubling rise after Muslims were murdered in New Zealand,” said Iman Atta, director of Tell MAMA. “Figures have risen over 590 percent since New Zealand in comparison to the week just before the attack.

This article was first published in Arab News 

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Islam, Judaism leaders to discuss interfaith ties with Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi

Time: January 21, 2019     

Pope Francis leads a mass to mark the World Day of Peace in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (Reuters)

Pope Francis’ upcoming historic visit to Abu Dhabi, which will begin on February 5, will bring together many prominent leaders from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism from various parts of the region.

According to local media reports, these leaders will discuss ways to improve interfaith relations and promote dialogue. The meeting will be part of the series of events planned on the sidelines of the Pope’s visit to the UAE, which would be his first to the Gulf region.

Pope Francis is also scheduled to hold a meeting with Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb of Sheikh of al-Azhar, which organizes meetings of more than 600 spiritual leaders representing different religions.

Mansour al-Mansouri, Director General of the National Media Council of the UAE, said that the Pope’s historic visit “reflects the spirit of tolerance of the United Arab Emirates.”

He said that residents in the United Arab Emirates have embraced 76 churches and temples belonging to different religious beliefs. Al-Mansouri said that the Pope’s visit would attract great media attention, as this is the first visit of its kind to the region.

According to reports, the Pope will lead a mass in Abu Dhabi, which is likely to be attended by 135,000 Catholics from the UAE and other parts of the region.

Secretary-General of the Council of Muslim Scholars, Dr. Sultan al-Rumaithi, said that the meeting would include discussions on the principles of religions, what they have in common, as well challenges and opportunities.

He also highlighted the importance of tolerance, which he said, is an integral part of Islam. Al-Rumaithi also said that there would be significant Saudi participation in the meeting.

He said that this is not a political meeting and would instead focus on interfaith participation and the importance of tolerance that the UAE is trying to highlight.

This article was first published in Al Arabiya English  

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Muslim World League International forum calls for positive coexistence

Time: January 20, 2019

Muslim World League Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa speaks in Bujumbura on Saturday. (SPA)
  • Muslim World League meets in Burundi to discuss religious, ethnic and political divisions

JEDDAH: The first vice president of Burundi, Gaston Sindimwo, has praised his country for overcoming its turbulent past, citing how religious organizations have promoted peace and tolerance, at the Muslim World League (MWL) forum in the Burundian city of Bujumbura.
Sindimwo stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths, praising the MWL for helping to strengthen ties between groups both in Burundi and the rest of the world.
“Muslims in Burundi, along with Islamic foundations, have worked for peace and security following the civil war. This forum will be an opportunity to enhance security, and prevent clashes and war,” he said in his opening address.
The MWL’s secretary-general, Mohammed Al-Issa, underscored his eagerness to build bridges with all countries, so as to achieve better global cooperation and communication.
“We disagree but we talk and understand each other, love one another and respect each other. When we disagree, then, we must compromise, cooperate, and coexist,” he said.
The forum, called “Religious and Ethnic Pluralism and Positive Coexistence,” attracted a wide cross-section of senior clerics, politicians, businessmen and public figures, from all corners of the Islamic world and wider Africa.
During the summit, delegates called upon the MWL to cooperate more with public and private bodies in Africa, to support and accelerate development and prosperity, and to pressure various social media platforms to promote positive convergence between cultures.
Burundi’s mufti, Sheikh Abdallah Kajandi Sadiki, also addressed the forum, saying that Islam should bring people together irrespective of color or faith. “This is the first foundation of the concept of tolerance. It must prevail among mankind in their dealings and their behavior,” he said.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Africa’s scholars: The Kingdom is the spiritual and religious leader of all Muslims and we, as Muslims, commend its efforts and do as it says

Time: January 15, 2019     


Africa’s scholars: The Kingdom is the spiritual and religious leader of all Muslims and we, as Muslims, commend its efforts and do as it says

SG of MWL follows up health programs, hands over new houses to widows and oversees distribution of food baskets among the needy

Dr. Al-Issa inspects MWL development and humanitarian projects in Comoros

Sheikh Dr. Muhammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League (MWL), has inaugurated a number of MWL-run health centers during his visit to the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. His Excellency Sheikh Dr. Al-Issa was taken on a tour around the different sections inside the center where he visited the Cardiology, Laboratory, and the Wards and was briefed on the various services the center provides.
The MWL Secretary General paid a visit to new MWL-run Saad bin Moad Institute and inspected the final construction works. He met a number of African scholars who will be teaching the moderate Islamic approach at the institute, which is based on the message of Islam to all humans, a message that has promoted everything that is beneficial to the welfare of the entire humankind, Muslims and non-Muslims.
Muslims make up 100 % of the population in the Comoros, a country that builds bridges of love, cooperation and humanitarian relations with everyone. The scholars commended the Islamic and humanitarian role the Muslim World League plays as well as the efforts it exerts. They also reiterated that the Kingdom will continue to be the spiritual and religious leader of all Muslims whom should follow what it says as long as such action serves the greater public interest of Islam, Muslims and the entire humankind. He also visited the construction site of Saad Thabit Yaqoub Mosque in Bahani Village.
Sheikh Dr. Al-Issa visited numerous development and humanitarian projects in the Comoros and handed over the keys of new houses, built by the MWL, to a number of widows and orphans. He also supervised the process of distributing food baskets to the needy.

This article was first published in AlRiyadh Daily

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Greeting Christians: The problem of ‘crisis fatwas’

Time: January 02, 2019     

Every morning, a young girl prepares her pencils and papers, carries her bag, saying goodbye to her mother and heads to school. She does not ask about her friend’s religion while running alongside her to the classroom. She might be Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim. Children, with their innocent instincts, do not take things in a way that is filled with historical hatred!

The innocence of dealing with the other, out of his good origin, is a legitimate goal of the bases of Sharia. God help the Muftis as by the end of each year, during the Christian holidays, questions pour on them, which shows how some Muslims are deeply embarrassed of this issue, despite Muslims and Christians mingling together everywhere.

Some scholars are still isolated and use the “Crisis Feqh legacy” for Fatwas issued under the shadows of swords and the echoes of drums of war, and flowing of blood following crises. They were not meant to be eternal. It is better to generalize its result throughout all ages of Islam, even during times of peace.

God help the Muftis as by the end of each year, during the Christian holidays, questions pour on them, which shows how some Muslims are deeply embarrassed of this issue

Turki Aldakhil

Following the Prophet

Although greeting Christians and all non-Muslims for their occasions is only natural, as it is natural for human unity. However, some reminding of the fatwas and evidence, omits the ignorance, assures concerned hearts and achieves the required civil benefit.

Who can forget Asmā’ bint Abi Bakr’s Hadeeth, which is mentioned in Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, when she told Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him: “My mother came to me while she is polytheist, she asked me to connect with her.” The Prophet replied: Connect with your mother.” This Hadeeth establishes the connection between those who believe in different religions. Sharia’s goal is not to uproot other religions, actually other religions remained in the Arab peninsula till the death of the Prophet. God allowed for the Muslims to eat the food of the Christians and Jews, as well as allowing to marry them. Thus how would marriage be allowed, among hatred, isolation and uprooting? And how can the love and satisfaction of a woman be tested before marriage, and then as a mother of children and the caretaker in her husband’s life and after his death?

This can definitely never be known if the judgement in Islam is isolation, exile and discrimination as some believe!

The Fatwa in our modern age, can be divided into two sections:

The first is precautionary, ascetical, and preaching, which stems from self-protection and making a judgment that may result in mistakes. This is criticized by scholars of origins and purposes as it contradicts with the objective of fatwa and the logic of adapting and explaining the judgment. Without ascetical self-protection, as asceticism is an individual’s right, it should not impact his fatwa.

The second is based on a comprehensive vision of reality, interest, the changing human condition, and the convergence of people, civilizations and cultures, which became a different reality than in the past, and comes out of the Sharia faculties and its supreme resolves. This mufti needs fundamentalism tools, legitimate awareness and civil jurisprudence. I have an example for the second type, for a fatwa issued by a court of Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah.

In his search of the issue, Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah said: “Scientists had different opinions about greeting the non-Muslims. In Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal doctrine, there are three stories of prohibition, hatred and what is allowed. The last one is the one chosen by Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah; as this is for the best interest, which we choose. Thus greetings, condolences and visiting their patients is allowed. These stories in all these cases are stated by al-Maradawi in “al-Insaaf”. What the council had mentioned about Ibn Taymiyyah in other books like “Iqteda’ al-Serat al-Mustaqim”, might not be consistent with his documented choices.”

As a result of his research on this issue, he saw what was right is to greet them for many legitimate considerations, of which is the prophet’s own deeds (peace be upon him) in visiting people who have different religions. Also, the extensive texts of Sharia, including the main text of tolerance and coexistence: “Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who do not fight your faith”.

This is a legitimate contemporary vision. Adopting it leads to overcoming hundreds of years of fighting and conflict. Civilization now gathers all religions, with the emergence of the State in its philosophical sense, establishing strong social contact upon which laws inside the city was built. None of the believers of any religion have the right to deny the ideas, opinions and the convictions of others. These convictions which were based under “crisis conditions”, to turn it a judgment throughout all the quiet and peaceful periods. That Ummah has passed on, and has won and lost. The lesson is in the jurisprudence produced under the shadow of prosperity and coexistence, as in the history of Muslims in Andalusia, which has achieved a shining example of coexistence and tolerance between Muslims and followers of all religions.

This is how jurisprudence or Fiqh flourishes, under prosperous conditions. As for the States, they do not flourish without coexistence and tolerance among the society’s elements, the fusion of its components and their acceptance of each other. The minimum level of acceptance is interacting in their celebrations and occasions.

Turki Aldakhil was the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. He began his career as a print journalist, covering politics and culture for the Saudi newspapers Okaz, Al-Riyadh and Al-Watan. He then moved to pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat and pan-Arab news magazine Al-Majalla. Turki later became a radio correspondent for the French-owned pan-Arab Radio Monte Carlo and MBC FM. He proceeded to Elaph, an online news magazine and, the news channel’s online platform. Over a ten-year period, Dakhil’s weekly Al Arabiya talk show “Edaat” (Spotlights) provided an opportunity for proponents of Arab and Islamic social reform to make their case to a mass audience. Turki also owns Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre and Madarek Publishing House in Dubai. He has received several awards and honors, including the America Abroad Media annual award for his role in supporting civil society, human rights and advancing women’s roles in Gulf societies. He tweets @TurkiAldakhil.

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‘Rescue Muslim countries from conspiracies, turmoil’

Time: December 25, 2018

The conference was organized by Muslim World League in Makkah. (Photo/Supplied)
  • Division, sectarian strife and conflict can be quelled through our adherence to the tenets of the Holy Qur’an”

JEDDAH: Sectarianism is the region’s biggest menace, according to one of the most senior Islamic scholars in the Muslim world.
Shawki Allam, Egypt’s grand mufti, made the statement at a two-day conference on Islamic unity, which was organized by the Muslim World League (MWL) in Makkah on Wednesday.
Allam reiterated that Saudi Arabia remained the “heart of Islam” and commended the MWL for holding the conference amid times of hardship in the Muslim world.
“The challenges and dangers engulfing us are too great to ignore,” he said. “We call on scientists, thinkers and researchers from East to West to find ways to rescue Muslim countries from the turmoil and conspiracies they are being subjected to. Division, sectarian strife and conflict can be quelled through our adherence to the tenets of the Holy Qur’an.”
Allam emphasized that scripture abolishes all forms of discrimination, which includes tribalism and racism, and warned against intolerance exacerbating an already dire level of disunity.
“Rivalry and division have destroyed any sense of brotherhood, which is the essence of Islam,” he said.

This article was first published in Arab News

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FaceOf: Dr. Shawki Allam, grand mufti of Egypt

Time: December 25, 2018

Dr. Shawki Allam
  • Born in the Nile Delta governorate of Beheira in 1961, Allam received his Ph.D. in jurisprudence and Sharia law from the Al-Azhar University in 1996
  • Known as a moderate who renounces fanaticism, Allam gained support by not having any political affiliations

Dr. Shawki Allam is the 19th and the current grand mufti of Egypt through Dar Al-Ifta Al-Misriyyah. Since its inception in 1895, it has been Egypt’s educational institution and government body founded to represent Islam and a center for Islamic legal research.

The government’s first and primary source of religious authority, it is seen as the symbolic religious representative of the government, and is able to issue fatwas on religious matters. By drawing upon the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions, it aims to keep contemporary Muslims in touch with religious principles while clarifying and removing doubts concerning religious laws.

On Tuesday, Dr. Shawki Allam expressed his thanks and appreciation to King Salman for his patronage of Islamic Unity Conference, which concluded in Makkah and was organized by the Muslim World League. Allam emphasized his permanent support for Saudi Arabia stemming from their bonds of Arabism and Islam.

Born in the Nile Delta governorate of Beheira in 1961, Allam received his Ph.D. in jurisprudence and Sharia law from the Al-Azhar University in 1996. Before being appointed as Egypt’s grand mufti, he served as the chairman of the Department of Jurisprudence at the School of Sharia at Al-Azhar University’s Tanta branch.

Known as a moderate who renounces fanaticism, Allam gained support by not having any political affiliations. In February 2013, he was elected grand mufti by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars replacing Ali Gomaa. The bylaws of Al-Azhar state grand muftis must be under the age of 60, have worked continuously inside the religious establishment following his education, be a scholar of both jurisprudence and Sharia law, and be fluent in a second language other than Arabic.

This article was first published in Arab News

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King Salman addresses Islamic scholars on need to counter negative image

Time: December 13, 2018  

King Salman bin Abdulaziz addressed the International Islamic Unity Conference organized by the Muslim World League in Mecca. (Supplied)

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, asserted that Saudi Arabia, which was established on values of moderation and temperance will continue its commitments and initiatives that aim to achieve the hopes of Muslims worldwide.

The statement was made during a speech delivered on behalf of King Salman by Prince Khalid Al Faisal, the King’s adviser, at the opening of the International Islamic Unity Conference which is organized by the Muslim World League in Mecca.

The conference was titled “Islamic unity – the risks of classification and exclusion.”

Prince Khalid Al Faisal welcomed the participants to the conference and conveyed to them greetings of King Salman.

King Salman’s statement was as follows:

I highly appreciate the presence of these elite scholars of the nation to this conference, out of their duty in healing the gap threatening their nation, to reject disputes, to unite, and to agree on one notion to direct at the world.

We have hope in this enlightening knowledge, to omit the nation’s stumbles and achieve unity, which is not directed against anyone, but rather it seeks solidarity for the good of  humanity.

Necessity of overcoming negative images

A quick look at our current reality, is enough to make us realize the necessity of overcoming the negative images that burdened our present and historical accumulations and its impact on the Islamic nation path. Thus we are invited to spread awareness, correct the wrong concepts and understand the different concept by creating links of discussions and cooperation towards harmony and hard work.

Look to the future with a promising perspective filled with a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity.

The International Islamic Unity Conferencemade a good choice by selecting “Islamic unity – the risks of classification and exclusion”, as a title for this conference and made “promoting the concepts of national state and its common values” one of its pillars as an attempt to consolidate the word of the nation’s scholars, and thinkers.

The centrality of Islam and moderation, which spread on the basis of its civilization, to cover about two-thirds of the world.

Address obstacles that hinder unity

Our whole Islamic world looks forward today for this gathering and hopes that your distinguished conference will address the obstacles that hinder establishing its ultimate unity and promotes its separation that God had warned us from.

Undoubtedly, you are gathered today for a difficult mission, considering that it addresses many accumulations and hostilities more than the haters of the Islamic Nation who drive a fierce campaign against their religion, morals, culture and civilization.

They attribute to Islam what is not, taking advantage of the extremists in both direction.

However, with your strong will and firm knowledge, you are able to achieve this International Islamic Unity, the dream of your nation throughout the globe, so that the nation would continue its historical role as a role model for the whole world.

Saudi Arabia, which was established on moderation and tolerence, which oversees the service of the two holy mosques and the guests of Rahman will continue its obligations and initiatives to achieve the hopes of Muslims.

I ask God almighty, to grant you success and fulfillment in your noble mission, and to help us all for what He loves and pleases.

This article was first published in Al Arabiya English  

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The Pope of Hope: Egypt’s Tawadros II on status of Copts, regional politics and Saudi reforms

Time: December 05, 2018

1 / 2
Pope Tawadros II talks regional politics, status of Copts and his views on reforms in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Ziyad Alarfaj)
  • Tawadros spoke about the damage inflicted on the Copts in Egypt during the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule from 2012 to 2013
  • Tawadros is looking forward to visiting Saudi Arabia soon at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

CAIRO: It was July 21, 1969, and Neil Armstrong had just taken mankind’s first steps on the moon. In Egypt, 16-year-old Wagih Subhi Baqi Sulayman was transfixed by the achievement. More in hope than in any expectation of a reply, he wrote to the US astronaut asking for an autograph.

A few weeks later, to the young man’s surprise, an envelope arrived containing a signed, color photo of the moon landing.

Nearly 50 years later, while the hair is a little more gray, Wagih’s eyes remain very much on celestial matters. Of course, nobody refers to him by his birth name these days. For more than 100 million Egyptians, and to the rest of the world, he is now known as Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of Alexandria, Patriarch of the See of St. Mark and leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

He has, sadly, lost the moon landing photo — but never the memory of those days. With a soft voice and a gentle smile that lasted throughout our interview at St Mark’s Cathedral in the Abbassia district of Cairo, he recalled obtaining Armstrong’s address from a radio program on Voice of America that encouraged pen pals to write to him.

Pope Tawadros receives an Arab News cartoon commissioned in solidarity with Egyptians after a December 2016 attack on a church. The cartoon, by Mohammed Rayes, shows the word Cairo written using the C from a mosque’s crescent and a cross from a church. In picture: Editor in Chief Faisal Abbas and Noor Nuqali, Riyadh correspondent (AN photo)

“I sent him a letter, telling him I would love to see a color photo of him on the moon, because the newspapers used to publish his photo in black and white. I was surprised when I received the envelope.”

The teenager had assumed that Armstrong was named after the Nile River. “I was obsessed with his name. In the West, they are used to the name Neil. But here in Egypt no one would call his child Nile, although it is a beautiful name.”

The selection of Tawadros II as pope, a complex ritual, concluded in November 2012 and came at a difficult time for Egyptian Christians and the country in general. It was shortly after the collapse of the Mubarak presidency and coincided with the short-lived rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Daesh.

Our regions have been established with the existence of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The meetings that the crown prince and Saudi officials are holding are very beneficial to the nation and the Kingdom. 

Pope Tawadros II

Tawadros leads nearly 15 million Copts in Egypt and a further 2 million abroad, according to the church’s registry. They practice a form of Christianity established 2,000 years ago by St. Mark, and, like most Christians and minorities in the region, have endured persecution at various times in their history.

Recently, however, the persecution has become so widespread that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an effort to protect Christians in the Middle East. Pope Tawadros agrees the situation is alarming. “Emptying the Middle East of Christians poses a great danger to stability and peace,” he says. “Christianity is deeply rooted in the Middle East.When all our countries were established, Christians and Muslims were there, as well as Jews in ancient history.”

The pope describes events in Syria and Iraq, with the rise of Daesh, as “very painful,” and points out that Christians who had to flee and seek asylum abroad were among the most affected. However, his concerns extend beyond the plight of Christians alone, and he argues that a “weakening of Arab countries” means “the weakening of Arabs as a whole … Christians and Muslims alike.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to his home country of Egypt, Tawadros is slightly more optimistic. “If you read through history, you will find that the Lebanese emigrated three centuries ago. However, the Christians in Egypt only started to emigrate 50 years ago, and that was due to the conditions that existed then.”

Under Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012-2013, Tawadros says, “Christians feared for their lives and fled the country. When the country regained its stability, a lot of them returned to Egypt. Christian emigration rates have dropped significantly.”

Despite the pope’s reassurances, many Copts are increasingly alarmed, their fear fueled by a surge in attacks on both them and their places of worship. Indeed, Egypt was highlighted as a country of concern in a report published this year by Open Doors, a US charity that supports persecuted Christians worldwide.

Tawadros says that these attacks are painful, but insists that their target is not Copts themselves or their churches, but “Egyptian unity.” 

“To be fair, these attacks also targeted the armed forces, the police, and our brothers and sisters in mosques. One year ago, a mosque in Al-Arish region in North Sinai was a target for a terrorist attack where many Egyptians died.”

Nevertheless, one attack in particular this year was unprecedented. The body of Bishop Anba Epiphanius, abbot of the Monastery of St. Macarius, 100 km northwest of Cairo, was found with a crushed skull in his monastic cell in July. Those accused of the murder are traditionalists of his own faith, and they await trial. The crime appears to be directed at Pope Tawadros’ reformist, outward-looking and ecumenical policies.

The pope denies the existence of a split in the church and says life as normal carries on in all monasteries. Such a one-off crime may happen “at any time and place,” he says. “Even between the disciples of Jesus, there was a disciple called Judas who sold his soul to evil. The authorities are now investigating this crime and we are waiting for the findings.”

As for Pope Tawadros’ own political views, at first he resists my attempts to persuade him to reveal them. “Religion should not interfere with politics,” he insists. But this is the Middle East, and “even if religion doesn’t want to interfere in politics, politics will interfere with religion,” I persevere.

“The cause of crises in the world is this interference,” he replies with a sigh.

However, it would be a mistake to think that because the pope is reluctant to express his opinions, he does not have them. A year ago, he cancelled a meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence in protest at Washington’s decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The church said that the US decision had failed to “take into consideration the feelings of millions of Arab people.”

Tawadros views Palestine as an “occupied country,” and hopes a “spirit of understanding prevails” between Israelis and Palestinians so that Jerusalem can be a capital for both states “and peace reigns in the region.”

Leading a minority in a highly politicized part of the world, Coptic popes have always been careful with their positions. For instance, Cyril VI, pope from 1959 until his death in 1971, banned Copts from going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage after the Israeli occupation of 1967. The ban remained even after Egypt and Israel signed their peace treaty in 1979, and officially still does.

“The normalization … was between the Egyptian government and the Israeli government, but not between the two peoples,” explains Tawadros. However, he argues that the ban has ended up harming the Coptic presence in the Holy Land, and the rules have been slightly relaxed to allow elders who have children living abroad to travel to Jerusalem.

Tawadros himself made a rare visit there in 2015, to lead the funeral prayers for Bishop Abraham, the Coptic Metropolitan Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Near East. He also visited the Vatican in 2013, the first visit of a Coptic pope in 40 years, and his last trip was in July this year. “It is a good relationship based on friendship and love with Pope Francis,” he says. “There is a dialogue committee between us and the Vatican that meets annually.”

Meanwhile, on a state visit to Egypt this year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman invited Tawadros to the Kingdom, and all eyes are on when that visit might take place.

Tawadros found the crown prince “an open-minded person who has a modern vision to life, and this pleases us a lot. I personally follow all the positive developments that took place under the directives of King Salman, his crown prince and all Saudi officials, especially since Saudi Arabia is a main pillar of the Arab and the Islamic world, and on the international level as well.

“The meetings that the crown prince and Saudi officials are holding on all levels, whether religious, political or cultural, are very beneficial to the nation and the Kingdom and contribute to human development. We hail and appreciate these efforts that encompass a lot of hope for our brothers in Saudi Arabia.

So when will Pope Tawadros visit the Kingdom? “There is no specific time for the visit, but it will take place when God wishes,” he says.


This article was first published in Arab News

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