Recent developments in Egypt show that Pope Francis’ visit to its capital Cairo last month might have inspired a more vigilant approach to religious hate speech against Christians by religious leaders and the media alike.
John L. Allen writes in the Catholic publication Crux that two recent signs suggest the visit might have been one of the more effective ones: “When [Francis] delivered his strongest-yet denunciation of religious violence and extremism, [he] may have captured a mood”.
Allen refers specifically to the construction of a new Christian church with Muslim support where the village Mayor, in his speech, presented its construction as a visible and concrete sign of strengthening national harmony.
Then there is the powerful Islamic cleric Sheikh Salem Abdul Jalil who has been charged for anti-Christian comments made on his TV show.
He is to face a misdemeanor court in Cairo on 24 June for calling Christians ‘non-believers’ or ‘infidels’. The TV channel apologized to all “Christian brothers” in an official statement and announced that it would end its contract with the presenter.
Abdul Jalil, also the former deputy minister for proselytism at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, apologized for hurting the feelings of Christians but stood by his comments, saying: “The Islamic ruling that the creed of non-Muslims is corrupt does not mean that their lives or money are not protected. Freedom of beliefs is enshrined in Islam.”
Naguib Gobrail, a lawyer and Coptic Christian activist, however told AFP: “This [his comments] is slander of religion and threatens Egyptian unity,” referring to a law that punishes perceived insults to religion that has been used to imprison both Christians and Muslims.
Members of the Egyptian parliament announced that they have filed a lawsuit against Abdul Jalil following his remarks.
In reaction, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, in charge of mosques in Egypt, barred Abdul Jalil from giving sermons; it said that the ministry would “prevent him from ascending the pulpit unless he remedies the concerns and tension caused by his comments”.
On 15 May, the ministry also banned one of its other employees and an Al-Azhar scholar, Abdullah Roshdy, from preaching after he backed Abdul Jalil and his comments. Roshdy’s membership of the second largest political party Future of a Nation (Mostaqbal Watan) was also suspended; the party said Jalil’s comments were defamatory.
The controversy comes as Muslim institutions in Egypt are pressured to take a tougher stance against Islamist extremists following the Palm Sunday church bombings.
On 13 May Al-Azhar, the 1000 year old seat of Islamic Sunni learning in Cairo, announced it would form a committee to prepare a new law to confront hatred and violence in the name of religion. Once finished, it would go to parliament.
This followed the resignation of Al-Azhar’s own president Ahmed Hosni, over his criticism of a controversial Muslim reformer Islam El-Beheiry, whom he called an “apostate”.
Al-Azhar is a mosque and university: Pope Francis made a point of visiting and speaking at the Peace Conference hosted by the university as part of improving relationships with the institution.
In 2011 Al Azhar broke off ties with the Vatican after Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI called for better protection for Copts, following a bombing of a church in Alexandria in which 23 people were killed.
It is interesting, notes Allen, that this time Pope Francis received a warm welcome when he came with a similar message, challenging the religious violence aimed at the Christian population.
Bishop Daniel, deputy to Coptic Pope Tawadros II, in a welcoming ceremony for an African media delegation, corrected the view that Copts are a minority in Egyptian society; he said they number about 15 million, more than 15% of Egypt’s population.
Meantime Coptic families who fled their homes and communities in North Sinai because of violent attacks from IS-affiliated militant groups, are not receiving the support promised by the government. In a statement they say their living conditions in Port Said (where they have found temporary shelter in youth hostels), are difficult and that return to their villages is not an option, referring to what happened to Nabil Saber Ayoub Mansour. He returned to El-Arish to pick up a school certificate for his son, and was killed by militants on 6 May.