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Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Egypt

11 Sep 2012 – AL-MUKHALFA, Egypt (CNS) — On a recent summer evening, the local representative of Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood party paid a visit to the almost entirely Coptic Catholic village of Al-Mukhalfa, known as “Little Rome” deep in Egypt’s south.

“When you are threatened, we are threatened,” party representative Yusuf Sherif told an audience of about 80 people who were crowded into the small courtyard of St. George Coptic Catholic Church. A quarter of them were teenage girls from the church choir, on standby to sing.

“When a Christian girl is harassed by a Muslim, we defend the girl,” Sherif said.

“Our church is open to all those who need it,” responded Coptic Catholic Bishop Youssef Aboul El Kher of Sohag, Egypt, when it was his turn to speak.

“We have many ministries for social good, such as women’s health and combating illiteracy. We are in the service of everyone,” he told the crowd. Then the teenagers burst into a song praising Egypt “everyone loves.”

The Muslim-Christian exchange was part of an initiative established by the local Coptic Catholic Church to help Egypt recover from years of authoritarian rule and the turmoil that overthrew it in January 2011.

Such church-related initiatives and programs are providing sorely needed social, education, medical and economic help to Egypt. They serve as important platforms for understanding between the country’s Christians and Muslims, especially now, at a time when tension and insecurities are high, say those involved in the Catholic aid efforts.

“We have always had maternity health centers, preschools and illiteracy eradication campaigns and classes,” said Father Romany Adly, who attended the St. George parish program.

“These are opportunities for the Muslim and Christian communities to mix and interact,” he said, explaining that under the initiative his own parish about four miles away held seminars on preventing child malnutrition, which many Muslim mothers attended. He said the Coptic Catholic medical clinic in his village has served mostly Muslim families for more than 26 years.

“In my time working with the Coptic Catholic Church, I have been very much impressed,” said Britton Buckner, head of programming for Catholic Relief Services in Egypt, which funded the initiative in addition to the other economic, education and safety net programs it finances here.

Buckner said that members of Egypt’s Coptic Catholic community told her that living peacefully among Muslim neighbors was a priority for their church in the post-revolution nation.

“They are very much out in the forefront and want to promote working together for the betterment of the country,” Buckner said.

Speaking anonymously, Egyptian Catholics expressed fear for Christians under the country’s newly elected President Mohammed Morsi of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood despite promises that minority rights will be respected.

Coptic Christians in Egypt number about 8 million people; about 200,000 are Catholic. The vast majority of Egyptians — about 74 million — are Sunni Muslims.

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Tags: Egypt Middle East Christians Christian-Muslim relations Arab Spring Coptic