This article was first published at Lapido Media.
Amr Saleh, a 33-year-old lecturer in Islam in English had never met a Christian until he moved to Cairo. He believed monasteries were places of torture and black magic.
Now the respected scholar who is based at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, enthusiastically studies liberation theology.
He also wants to transform the traditional approach to comparative religion.
Saleh’s change of heart was sparked by an unlikely friendship with a French priest. It prepared him for a groundbreaking decision by al-Azhar to allow its students to learn about Christianity in Rome.
‘We should understand people as they want to be understood,’ he told Lapido. ‘To teach Christianity you should start with Christians and learn from their perspective.’
Saleh was the first al-Azhar lecturer to go to Rome for the inaugural Summer School for Christian Sciences at Urbaniana Pontifical University.
Now, after five long years, full-fledged relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar are set to resume ‘very soon.’
Dr Kamal Boraiqa of al-Azhar’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (formed in February 2015) told Lapido new efforts are underway to rebuild ties between the leading institutions of the Christian and Muslim world.
He praised the groundbreaking educational partnership, which graduated the first ever Azhar scholar with a Vatican-certified diploma in Christianity.
Boraiqa described it as a step to ‘pave the way’ to restoring cooperation that had ground to a halt.
In 1998 Pope John Paul II and Grand Imam Mohamed Tantawi created the Joint Committee for Dialogue. In 2000 he became the first ever pontiff to visit al-Azhar.
But relations soured in 2006 when his successor, Pope Benedict, quoted a Byzantine emperor who criticized Islam.
And in January 2011 al-Azhar astounded the world by officially suspending dialogue following the Pope’s call for protection of Middle East Christians after the New Year’s Eve bombing of a church in Alexandria.
A thaw came in 2013 as Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb sent a message of congratulations to newly elected Pope Francis.
Six months later the pope sent a letter expressing his respect for Islam and a desire to build ‘mutual understanding.’
A further boost came in November 2014, when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Vatican and agreed with the Pope to renew dialogue.
It has been mostly quiet since. Boraiqa met with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran of the Joint Committee at high level interfaith meetings in Jordan in 2015, and conveyed to Tayyeb his wish to resume dialogue.
‘It proves we don’t mind our sons studying at the Vatican,’ Boraiqa said. ‘It is a message that we trust you.’
Saleh was the only Egyptian in the group of three Turks and two Chinese in the inaugural class. He said academics were eager to build good relations.
Originally from Fayoum, 100 kilometers south of Cairo, Saleh first came to al-Azhar as a student.
Dominican priest Fr John Jacques Perenes, from France, who was director of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo (IDEO), stumbled upon him struggling through a book on Christianity, and their eventual friendship ‘completely altered’ his outlook.
Now he is the one altering others. Most of his students at al-Azhar are from Indonesia and Malaysia, and never even heard of the Vatican.
The month-long intensive Urbaniana programme includes courses in theology, Old and New Testament, ethics, and church history.
But it also provides students an opportunity to witness the darker side of interfaith relations.
In the northern city of Padua, the authorities passed a law requiring immigrant kebab shops to close earlier than other restaurants, Saleh said. In Rome, he visited a Bangladeshi mosque marked by stark poverty.
But it was his visit to the Jewish ghetto and the stories of Jewish eviction to death camps in Germany that left the strongest impression.
‘I was deeply moved. Look what we can do to each other,’ he said. ‘And this was only a hundred years ago.’
The programme director is one Fr Roberto Cherubini. He told Lapido the school is meant to create a network of relations in the non-Christian world.
‘Often their perceptions are not correct,’ he said. ‘It is important to help them get information from the source.’
Cherubini blamed the media, and described the school as an effort to help Christian minorities by helping the majority religion better understand the Catholic faith.
To do so he interacts with reputed academic institutions. Saleh’s participation had been secured via direct conversation with al-Azhar’s Grand Imam.
Cherubini has requested five Egyptian scholars for next year, with plans to draw also from India and Indonesia.
Boraiqa also blamed the media for misrepresenting Muslims. He has travelled in the West, describing first-hand experience of Muslim stereotyping as potential terrorists.
But in the UK his experiences were better, owing, he said, to its multiculturalism. Once a visiting scholar at Birmingham University, he now joins al-Azhar’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue in official discussions with the Anglican Communion.
Al-Azhar hosted the Bishops of Bradford, Southampton, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary of interreligious affairs, arranged through Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of Egypt. Together they examined how religious texts could be used to justify violence.
‘Extremists take a verse out of context, and use it as a pretext,’ he said. ‘If you clarify issues for religious leaders, they will foster better understanding, promoting respect and cooperation.’
Anglican dialogue will with al-Azhar will resume in the UK in autumn 2016, mirroring a pattern that used to exist with the Vatican.
Meanwhile, all the signs for imminent resumption of relations with the Roman Catholic Church are there, aided by a joint effort to transcend religion with the most basic of human interactions.
‘We are warming the relations that have recently cooled,’ said Saleh. ‘What al-Azhar and the Vatican need is mutual friendship.’
STOP PRESS: We have just learned today that al-Azhar has approved a scholarship from Urbaniana for Amr Saleh to read for a PhD in Christianity and Comparative Religions.