Father Samir Khalil, professor at the Pontifical Oriental Academy in Rome (Photo: Jacques Berset)
cath.ch, Aymeric Pourbaix, 2017-04-26
Ahead of Pope Francis’ trip to Egypt on April 28-29, 2017, Egyptian Jesuit priest Samir Khalil told I.MEDIA news agency why Egypt has a place in Christianity in the Middle East. The priest is the director of the Center for Arab Christian Studies and Documentation (CEDRAC) at the Pontifical Oriental Academy in Rome and is well known for Middle Eastern affairs.
How to explain reincarnation? monasticism in Egypt?
The monastic system is deeply rooted in Egyptian tradition. Monastic life and monasticism were born in Egypt and this marked much of world Christianity. And now still booming in Egypt. You have to visit a monastery between Cairo and Alexandria on vacation: a whole crowd of hundreds and children, who come from all over the world to refresh their souls.
Admittedly, this is also due to pressure from Islam, but also because the country has developed a very strong religious spirit, more so than Lebanon or other countries in the Middle East. Although not everyone goes to church, they have 200 days of fasting a year, not just for monks. On Wednesdays and Fridays, before major holidays like the Assumption, Christmas, etc., monastic life had a strong impact on Egypt, thus motivating Egyptians to become fully Christians.
The Orthodox and Catholics of Egypt also have a very special reverence for Our Lady. In particular the apparitions of Our Lady at Zeitoun in the outskirts of Cairo between 1968 and 1971…
Since 1968, these apparitions have been recognized by the Orthodox Patriarch Kyril of Alexandria. But it should also be noted that these apparitions were seen by many Egyptians and were photographed. This explains why the apparition of Our Lady also attracts many Muslims, for whom Mary is an important image, present in the Koran.
What do you think of the conversions to Christianity in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, which were the subject of intense discussion in the country, when Mohamed Hegazi, a Muslim convert to Christianity, made his first conversion to Christianity in 2007 to register his change of religion on his marital status?
The conversions are real: it is a phenomenon confirmed by local pastors and often follows the visions. Personally, I have collected hundreds of documents, most of which are videos, and have been posted on Youtube.
Where do the Islamic pressures that you raise come from?
Fundamentalisms were born in the 1930s when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the symbolic monarchy represented by the Turkish Empire. At that time the Sunni movement (Salafism and Wahhabism) spread, they advocated a return to strict religious observance according to the Prophet Muhammad, and they organized themselves with the formation of the Saudi state. As such, it was a reaction against the secularization of the Arab world with its dream of re-establishing its medieval caliphate.
In the 19th century, the West was perceived as a point of interest, to the point that it marked the Renaissance (Nahda) of Egypt, including in its Constitution, inspired by Switzerland and France. At that time, Islamic law (sharia) was not yet enshrined in the Constitution. It was only under President Sadat that Article 2 was introduced (which states that Islam is the state religion of Egypt). One could say that the recent attacks could be seen as attacks against President Al Sisi, who built in Cairo the largest church in Egypt, next to the largest mosque in the country… For Muslims, he is considered as a usurper.