Why the grand imam of al-Azhar should be standing up for Egypt’s Christians

Ahmed el-Tayeb exchanges gifts with Pope Francis (AP)

The grand imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque, Ahmed el-Tayeb, who is reckoned to be one of the chief authorities in the Sunni Muslim world, was recently received in the Vatican. This is surely good news, as we all want inter-religious dialogue, but, as John Allen of Crux reports, there are one or two matters that must give us pause.

First of all, this visit marks the resumption of dialogue after a five-year pause. Why the pause, you may ask? Well, dialogue was broken off by the Egyptian Muslim authorities in 2011, when Pope Benedict spoke out about the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Why they chose to do this is beyond me. To condemn the persecution of Christians is hardly to be anti-Islamic: if it were, think of the implications for Islam.

Moreover, this time, the grand imam had this to say on the same topic:

“Here I would like to say that the issue must not be presented as persecution of Christians in the East,” el-Tayeb said, “but on the contrary there are more Muslim than Christian victims, and we all suffer this catastrophe together.”

He has a point. ISIS has certainly killed more Muslims than Christians, and for one simple reason: there are far more Muslims to kill than Christians in the Middle East. Again, the political convulsions in Egypt have affected everyone, regardless of religion. However, this should not and must not obscure the fact that there are strains in Islam which see the persecution of Christians as either excusable, or even to be encouraged; one cannot and must not use the fact that Muslims are suffering as somehow relativising the suffering of Christians, the strategy that is often called “universalise to minimise”.

Christians are having a hard time in Egypt because certain Muslims carry out sectarian and anti-Christian attacks on them, such as this one reported today. The details of the attack are depressingly familiar, and underline the difficulty for Christians in Muslim-majority countries. There is always someone who is ready, at the slightest imagined provocation, to attack Christians and burn their churches or houses. How did this tinderbox situation arise? Was it the fault of the Christians? I doubt it. Could it possibly be the result of centuries of religious prejudice that has been encouraged, either passively or actively, by various Muslim religious authorities?

There was a time, and not so very long ago, that Catholics were encouraged to think badly of Protestants and Jews; this was by no means a universal phenomenon, just as anti-Christian feelings are not universal in the world of Islam. But some clergy undoubtedly contributed to it, and others did little to combat it. However, the Church took steps to stamp it out. Muslim authorities (and I know there is no Muslim pope, no single authority but rather many authorities, but that should not and cannot be an excuse) need to do the same thing, and for the same reason: anti-Christian prejudice among Muslim communities is a very bad advertisement for their faith. The grand imam needs to set an example and act. If he does so effectively, the first to benefit will be Egyptian Christians, naturally, but the rest of Egypt will benefit as well. At present attacks such as this one are a disgrace for Egypt, and Muslims everywhere.