Building Bridges of Dialogue through Culture

Supreme Council of Antiquities – Cairo
13 December 2010

After many years of practicing interfaith dialogue and attending international conferences from New York to Vienna to Madrid, I feel that the dialogue between cultures is growing in importance. My conviction that interfaith dialogue should not be separated from intercultural dialogue is such that in 2010 I asked the General Assembly of the association I chair (ADIC) to adapt our activities and add intercultural dialogue to the name of the association. We are now the “International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education”.

This association was established in France in 1989 as the “Association for Muslim-Christian Dialogue”. When I was elected president in 1995, I first sought to change the name to include dialogue with Jews. The late Sheikh of Al Azhar Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq, a great figure of enlightenment in the Islamic history of our country, was the one who encouraged me to do this He told me: “Do not confuse Israeli aggression against us with the fact that the three Abrahamic religions are integrally related. We must distinguish between the content of religions and the conduct of some of the followers of religions.”

My awareness of the cultural element to interfaith dialogue grew. During one of the annual meetings of the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Interfaith Dialogue and its counterpart at the Vatican, the president of the Azhar committee, Sheikh Fawzi El Zafzaf and I submitted a working paper about rejecting generalization when it comes to making judgments. This initiative had a positive impact and our paper was discussed at the Faculty of Theology in the Vatican and added to their references.

From a practical point of view, we often say that people in the West would be making a huge mistake if they extend their judgment of Bin Laden and his crimes to all Muslims. The same holds true for us. For instance, despite the fact that we disagree with statements about Islam made by Pope Benedict XVI, this should not be an excuse for us to generalize and condemn all Christians.

Isn’t it important to know, for example, that the Christians of the East supported the Saracens during the Crusades against the Franks who invaded their land?

And it’s an historical fact that that although the Vatican was one of the leaders of the Crusades, the Catholic Saint Francis of Assisi was among the opponents of the Crusades and went so far as to travel to Egypt and ask the king to help stop the bloodshed.

I would like to share with you some models I initiated over the last two years in Spain, specifically in Cordoba; the city who witnessed the golden age of coexistence between religions. On July 25, 2010 our association signed an agreement with Nexos Allianza, an affiliate of the UN Alliance of Civilizations initiative, to conduct a program takes us to the heart of the matter in today’s talk.

The main points of this agreement were:

  1. Organizing an encounter of young people – representatives of the future – from different religions and races first in Córdoba, then in Egypt, to affirm their common values
  2. Highlighting the effectiveness of music to bring people together, by organizing two concerts: one in Egypt around the Flamenco, and one in Córdoba around the famous Muslim-Christian singing group directed by Mr. Entessar Abd el Fattah
  3. Emphasizing the role that the international media can play to publicize the historic example of coexistence in Córdoba by inviting a group of Egyptian, Arab and European journalists to Córdoba to deepen their understanding
  4. Promoting the economic model of the Parque International de la Paz Euromediterraneo to potential Egyptian and Arab industrial partners, so that together with the people of Córdoba they can confirm their common goals of peaceful coexistence.

Last month, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked Dr. Abdel Aziz Hegazi, president of the General Federation of NGOs to submit some practical proposals on creating a real dialogue of cultures and to present them at the Malta conference on the first regional strategy of the Mediterranean in November 2010. Our French NGO, recognized by the Egyptian Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs, was asked to contribute to this presentation. Now, we are happy to say that we are working on a new bridge to link civil society with the dialogue of cultures and civilizations.

Finally, I’d like to tell you about another initiative I am working on to link culture to education. I met several times with Dr. Ahmad Zaki Badr, Minister of Education, and Dr. Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, Minister of Awqaf to discuss revising public school textbook. During those meetings I stressed the importance of integrating within the textbooks the values of peaceful coexistence, tolerance and love among the followers of different religions. It is our duty to protect new generations from the ideological extremism that not only destroys any chance for dialogue, but is a major catalyst for all kinds of violence.

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