19/5/2016, Al Bawaba
Aly El Samman It was my great fortune, when I was in Paris in the 1980s, to join an organization for interfaith dialogue founded by a highly regarded Egyptian, the late Dr. Adel Amer, and the Catholic Father Michel Lelong. After the death of Dr. Adel, I was elected President of that organization, ADIC, and shortly after that I called an extraordinary meeting of the ADIC General Assembly meeting at which I proposed that the organization expand its original name to include ‘Intercultural Dialogue’ as well as ‘Interfaith Dialogue and the Peace Education’. The idea of adding cultural dialogue in 2010 was to emphasize the cultural aspect of interfaith dialogue and to show that discussing culture and religion at the same time is beneficial to both .
One year after I took over the organization in 1993, we held a high-level conference at the Sorbonne, in june 1994, bringing together representatives of the three monotheistic religions. In attendance was Cardinal Franz Koenig, President of the Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican, the Vatican nuncio in Vienna, the Rabbi Rene-Samuel Sirat. Among the Muslim figures in the meeting was Dr. Hamdy Mahmoud Zagzoug, then dean of the Islamic Theology Faculty at Al Azhar, before becoming the minister of Awqaf and head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. Zagzoug issued a decree appointing me head of the council’s Dialogue Committee.
Many renowned people also attended this conference, in addition to some famous media figures such as Mufid Fawzy, French ministers such as secretary of state for foreign affairs Jean de Lipkowski, and the Head of the Paris Mosque Dalil Boubakeur.
The Sorbonne conference was a pivotal point in the history of ADIC because of the speeches and discussions that took place among intellectuals, writers and clerics. The proceedings of the Sorbonne conference were published, forming a historical archive for this organization, and also a manual for the teaching of peace.
Peace is a form of knowledge that we can learn, one that is based on culture, faith and history. One of the most important sources of historical knowledge of peace is Spain. This is where all religions converged and interacted: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Our organization held many conferences in that country, and we are planning to open a branch of our organization in this historically rich country.
It was only natural to open a branch of ADIC in Egypt, the cradle of all religions.
Interfaith Dialogue was very fortunate to receive immense support from the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the late Gad al-Haq Aly Gad al-Haq. During Gad al-Haq’s time, we were able to witness a historical event, namely the beginning of dialogue between Vatican and Al-Azhar. This was a start on the path that led to the signing of an agreement between Al-Azhar and the Vatican.
There is a story behind this agreement between Al-Azhar and the Vatican that is worth telling here. In April 1994, after I was able to convince Cardinal Franz Koenig, the person responsible for interreligious dialogue at the Vatican, to accompany me to Bern, Switzerland to meet with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Gad El-Haq Aly Gad-El Haq, where he was receiving medical treatment. The Cardinal came to Bern to pay his respects to the Grand Imam and wish him good health.
The two men convened for two complete sessions over five hours, the outcome of which was an extension of trust and amiability among them both. When the meetings were over, the Grand Imam turned to me and said, “Dr. Aly, this is a new venture for dialogue methodology that I do understand, therefore the idea of cooperation between Al-Azhar and the Vatican is one that can be examined.”
Once the Sorbonne Conference became a success, its main ideas were discussed in a brilliant interview by television host Mufid Fawzy with Cardinal Franz Koenig. Cardinal Koenig said, “From religions we learn, and from Islam I did learn.”
The words of Rabbi Sirat, said in honesty and frankness were, “I have read each word of the Quran, and I have not once come across a word that upholds violence, extremism or rejection of other”.
I was also called by the Grand Imam after he listened to ‘Hadeeth Al Madina’ program realized by Moufid Fawzi and he frankly told me, “I have now received your message, and understood what you wanted, I therefore delegate you, Dr. Aly to get in touch with the Pontifical Council to open the door for a dialogue with the Vatican.”
After my return to Cairo, I visited the Grand Imam Gad El-Haq, who welcomed me and said, “I have given you my approval to start talks with the Vatican, but I would like you to know that those around me may not follow my orders. However, dialogue is a personal matter, subject to will and acceptance. The road for you is open to meet with the leaders of Al-Azhar, because I want to be prepared when the hour comes to sign an official agreement that we do not get a single vote of dissent.”
My discussions with Al-Azhar leaders were based on calm, persistent and patient words. It took me four years up till 1998. With God as my witness, the Grand Imam Gad El-Haq asked me to translate every word said in the Sorbonne Conference into Arabic. These constituted more than two hundred pages. Complete copies of these translations were distributed to the members of the Islamic Research Academy, for each to express his opinion about the subjects of the conference’s dialogue.
When Sheikh Gad El-Haq passed away, and Grand Imam Doctor Sayed Tantawi took over, we had to hasten the final steps of the agreement. We also had to prepare the ground for a final meeting between delegates of the Vatican, headed by the Bishop Fitzgerald and the Grand Imam. Reaching my home after that meeting, I remember reflecting on the four-year endeavor, pondering it, as it was about to reach complete success, I prayed in thanks to God, because He was the inspiration and the best support.
Then came a day that I shall never forget. On 28 May 1998 the historical document was signed between Al-Azhar, signed by Al-Azhar delegate Sheikh Fawzy al-Zefzaf, and me; and from the Vatican Cardinal Francis Arinze and Bishop Michael L. Fitzgerald.
A meeting with Pope John Paul II on the following day was held to sign the agreement. We were welcomed by the Pope in a vast impressive hall where he gave an official speech. In his speech he pointed out the historical importance of the document that we had signed. Sheikh Fawzi al-Zefzaf also spoke on behalf of Sheikh Al-Azhar, then came my turn. I insisted though, that my words should not be prepared, but should be inspired by the spur of the moment.
We went into the Vatican court, after that, to meet journalists and let the whole world know that we had in hand a document that declared to the whole world that “Al-Azhar’s door, heart and mind are open to dialogue, for future generations to have hope for a better tomorrow.”