Aly El Samman: The Pleasure of Dialogue 

Profile by Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner for La Croix

At 85 years old, this pioneer of inter-religious dialogue in Egypt, architect of the permanent committee for dialogue between Al-Azhar and the Vatican, maintains his convictions intact. In the oriental living room of his Parisian apartment, located in the 16th arrondissement at the heart of the aptly named Villa Said, Aly El Samman puffs on his pipe.

This former journalist and communicator, who served his country “under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak”1 recalls his past, peppering his stories with names of the many great religious and political figures with whom he continues to associate.

From the age of 7, Aly El-Samman became aware of interfaith relations, to which he would devote much of his life. His grandmother, who was Muslim and matriarch of a major Sufi lineage of Tantain the Nile Delta, gave in to his entreaties and registered him in the small Coptic Orthodox school of the city.

“During religion class, I stayed outside in the garden. One day a school inspector declared that I should receive instruction in my religion. I still remember what my Islamic religion teacher told me when I told him that my Coptic friends spoke of God as the Father and Son: “Do not worry about what they say, they will go hell.””

That assertion did not go down well with the young El-Samman. Today, at almost 85 years old, he still remembers that teacher’s reflections, as well as the conversations that followed with Father Guirguis – the son of whom he found some decades later as priest of the Coptic parish of Chatenay-Malabry (Hauts-de-Seine, France).

Dialogue: Conviction and Action

After a long career in the Egyptian public service for information and media, it was through Adel Amer, a great defender of the Arab cause who worked in the Egyptian embassy, that El-Samman joined the Association for Muslim-Christian dialogue (ADIC) in 1991. Founded in 1989, with the support of Father Michel Lelong, ADIC is no longer a “modest interfaith organization.”

Because of his political contacts and friendships across borders and religions, El-Samman opened the organization to Judaism. And through the Dominicans of Cairo, he learned of the Vatican’s desire “to establish cooperation with Al-Azhar” the highest religious institution in Egypt extending its influence throughout the entire Muslim world. He tackled the task energetically. As he maintains to this day: “Dialogue is a conviction, but it is also an action.”

On 28 May 1998, through the good offices of El-Samman, an agreement was signed between Cardinal Francis Arinze, then president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue; his secretary, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald (who succeeded him, before being appointed papal nuncio in Cairo), and Sheikh Fawzi El-Zefzaf, vice-chancellor of Al-Azhar.

The Vatican had hoped for Grand Imam Tantawi to sign the agreement himself. It took El-Samman’s considerable diplomatic skills to explain to the Roman Catholic cardinals that this was unthinkableas the grand imam of Al-Azhar “is of the same rank as the pope.”

The agreement included the “creation of a joint committee for dialogue between the Vatican and Al-Azhar,”which isset to resume its work after some years of tension.

Meeting the other

Shuttling between Paris – which is still the headquarters of ADIC – and Cairo, this open-minded man continues to don his pilgrim’s staff. Last year, he decided to expand the activities of ADIC to include “intercultural dialogue”, convinced that “without dialogue among cultures, problems with inter-religious dialogue will persist.” It he has also published a new book that presents and explains – from the pens of respected representatives of each religion – the founding texts of each that concern “the acceptance of others, dialogue and peace”.First published in England, the book was released simultaneously in Egypt and France in late February, and recently translated into Hebrew.

His inspiration: The Legacy of Abraham

“In the 1990s, it was rare for Muslims, Christians and Jews in France to come together to reflect and act,” says Aly El Samman. There was only the Fraternity of Abraham, established in the wake of Vatican II in 1967 by the writer André Chouraqui. Therefore, the conference organized by ADIC at the Sorbonne on June 13, 1994 was seen as an important moment. Grand Rabbi Samuel Sirat participated, as well as Cardinal Franz König, the charismatic former archbishop of Vienna.

At the conclusion of the event, Dr. El-Samman exclaimed to the audience of journalists, dignitaries and leaders of the three religions: “We must never again separate the children of Abraham!”

1. “Egypt: From One Revolution to Another – Memoir of a committed citizen under Nasser, Mubarak and Sadat” Gilgamesh, 2012

2. “Three Windows on Heaven – Acceptance of Others, Dialogue and Peace in the Sacred Texts of the Three Abrahamic Religions” Gilgamesh, 2013

translated from La Croix

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