This is All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, the island across the Nile from downtown Cairo, and the church where I met Henrik, the Dutch pastor who is here doing a Ph.D. on interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians. The church is very active, hosting a clinic and is very involved with a Sudanese Refugee program. They had a wonderful shop in the bag with some beautiful handmade Sudanese handicrafts, which I forgot to go back to after Henrik and I hung out…doh!
Henrik and I went to a cafe for some food, and then a walk and then to a sheesha bar for a mid-afternoon smoke. I decided that if Luther can have the pubs and beer in Germany, then we could do theology in the sheesha bars of Cairo – and I know if Luther was in Cairo, he would have done the same. Henrik is a great guy, and is engaged in some really interesting conversations here in the Cairo area. I asked him about my friend from yesterday, Mohamed, and what to make of his statement, “Here in Cairo, it’s okay. Muslims and Christians…we are one.” Henrik said that is just part of the culture. He said you could have a Coptic Orthodox Priest and a Muslim Sheik meet in public and have a very cordial and friendly interaction, and then the priest would go to the church and talk about how evil Islam is and the need for conversion of all Muslims, and the sheik would go to the evening prayer and talk about how all Christians are evil and should be avoided. It’s a very interesting context to be in.
On the flip side, he told me a story of some women who were next door neighbors but had never met because one was a Muslim and the other was an Orthodox Christian. So, it’s a very tough atmosphere to be doing this kind of dialogue work with. The conservative/Orthodox Christians really don’t want very much to do with interfaith dialogue in Cairo – so it is the more liberal/mainline voices that Henrik is talking to. I asked him what his goals in interfaith dialogue were. He said his main two goals were simply understanding of Islam and to learn. One of his big things is for people to gain the understanding that just as Christianity is not “one”, Islam is not “one.” One can say, “I am a Christian” but that really doesn’t tell you much because of the great diversity among Christians (on the theological spectrum, spiritual practices, denominations, ethnicities, traditions, etc.) – and he said it is the same with Islam – “don’t expect that you have an understanding of Islam after meeting one Muslim. It is bigger and deeper and wider than that.”
So for everyone out there: What would your goals in interfaith dialogue be? I think for me, they would be 1) The chance to learn and gain understanding from others; 2) the desire to seek how to live better together; and 3) continue to foster a spirit of openness and acceptance.