Peter Wiederud introduced Aly El Samman as a former journalist, media advisor to President Anwar Sadat and a pioneer of interfaith dialogue, then gave the key points to be discussed during the meeting. These included the encounter between Pope Francis II and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Al-Tayeb, which took place in Rome on May 23rd 2016; intercultural and interfaith dialogue; as well as the Camp David peace treaty, Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, and key figures El Samman met over the years.
As to the first point, Aly El Samman stressed that the meeting between Pope Francis II and Great Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Al-Tayeb marked a commitment from their two important institutions to return to dialogue, after a five-year hiatus, due to Pope Benedict XVI’s speech in Ratisbonne on September 12th 2006, which generated negative reactions from the late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Sayed Tantawi. This meeting therefore came at an opportune moment to counter violence and fanaticism arising from ignorance, the greatest danger we are facing right now.
Before addressing the history of the relationship between the Vatican and Al-Azhar, El Samman wanted to clarify the role played by ADIC, recalling it was created in 1989 by the late Dr Adel Amer, former Director of the Arab League in Paris, and the Catholic Father Michel Lelong, under the name of Association for Islamic-Christian Dialogue.
After the death of Dr. Adel Amer in 1993, El Samman, lawyer and member of Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Egypt, was elected president of ADIC and remains so to this day. El Samman proposed to the members of ADIC to expand the organization’s name to include dialogue with Judaism. Then, in 2010, considering the various activities engaged in by ADIC, it took its present name, well-known in religious circles, but kept the same acronym: ADIC.
It is worthwhile to recall that in April 1994, ADIC instigated a meeting in Bern, Switzerland between Cardinal Franz Koenig, Cardinal of Vienna Austria, a member of Sacred College at the Vatican, and the late Great Imam of Al-Azhar Gad El Haq Aly Gad El Haq, opening the door to dialogue between their two great institutions. Then, ADIC organized a conference at La Sorbonne in Paris in June of the same year, in the presence of the former Grand Rabbi of France René-Samuel Sirat; Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna; and Mahmoud Hamdy Zagzoug, dean of the Faculty of Theology of Al-Azhar.
Then, following four years of initiatives and negotiations between the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue of the Vatican and the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue among the three monotheistic religions, an historical agreement was signed on May 28 1998 at the Vatican, leading to the creation of a Joint Committee for Dialogue.
This agreement, which recognized the role played by ADIC, was signed in the presence of Pope John Paul II by Cardinal Arinze, president of Pontifical council for Interfaith Dialogue; Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, secretary of the Pontifical Council; Sheikh Fawzi El Zefzaf, president of the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue with monotheistic religions; and Dr. Aly El Samman, vice-president of the Permanent Committee.
Following that event, the late Pope John Paul II mad an historical visit on February 24th 2000 to Al-Azhar in Cairo where he was greeted by late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Sayed Tantawi.
After the signing of the agreement between the Vatican and Al-Azhar, Al-Azhar went on to sign an agreement with the Anglican Communion, to lay a foundation for cooperation. Consequently, several meetings took place between Archbishop of Canterbury and Sheikh of Al-Azhar, from 1995 to 1999.
These meetings led to the signing of an agreement at Lambeth Palace in London on September 11th 2001 between Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Lord Georges Carey and the late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Sayed El Tantawi, creating a joint committee to promote dialogue establishing peace and confronting injustice. This agreement was also signed by Bishop of Egypt and North Africa Dr. Mounir Hanna; Bishop Canon Dr. Christopher Lamb; Sheikh Fawzi El Zefzaf, president of the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions; and Dr. Aly El Samman vice-president of the same Permanent Committee.
When it came time for Dr. El Samman to speak about the relationship between intercultural and interfaith dialogue, he said that combining them enriches both and leads to a better understanding between those two forms of dialogue, conferring upon them a broader sense. El Samman then told about his childhood and recalled that being the only Muslim child attending a Coptic orthodox school had a great impact on him.
When asked about his analysis of the peace accords between Israel and Egypt, and President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, El Samman said he was lucky to have been chosen by President Sadat on August 1, 1973 to become his advisor for external information. This function was to take on great importance after the 1973 October War began with Israel, as he kept the French and European public informed from Paris.
During the Camp David peace talks, President Giscard d’Estaing invited President Sadat to France to meet on his way to the USA. Sadat asked El Samman to organize a meeting with key Jewish figures during the official visit. Guided by Chancellor of Austria Bruno Kreisky, El Samman chose Nahum Goldman, former president of the World Jewish Congress; French banker, Baron Edmond de Rothschild; English banker, Sir Sigmund Warburg, president of Warburg bank; Austrian banker, Karl Kahane of Montana group, all of whom met with President Sadat at Marigny Palace in Paris.
El Samman revealed that at Camp David humor played an important part in the peace negotiations, recalling that President Sadat told him during discussions with Begin he did not think negotiations would be successful, especially considering Moses himself failed. El Samman also described President Sadat’s unsuccessful attempts to involve the Arab world in those negotiations and paid tribute to President Jimmy Carter’s key role during the stalled negotiations.
He insisted that Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the speech he delivered to the Knesset were major turning point in the talks, and wished the content of that speech could be included in school curriculums. This important cultural and historical lesson would help young people understand the courage required from heads of states.
To conclude, El Samman mentioned that throughout his career in Egypt, France and throughout Europe and the United States, some meetings with certain great people let to profound friendships such as, apart from the above mentioned personalities, those with French President Pierre Mendès France; James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank; André Ulmann, director of the French daily “La Tribune des nations”; Maxime Rodinson; Jean-Paul Sartre; Simone de Beauvoir; Claude Lanzmann; and Jean Lacouture, who played a key role in his career as a journalist.
A warm dialogue was conducted at the end of the event and all agreed upon the necessity to better promote intercultural dialogue, to continue confronting ignorance and discrimination, and to educate young people about tolerance and dialogue in Europe as well as in the Middle-East.