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Young Dominicans in Cairo

Saturday, November 28, 2009

From 31st June to 16th July, eighteen young English-speaking Dominicans, both students and young priests from all over the world met in Cairo, Egypt for a workshop on Islam. The Master of the Order was represented by Fr Prakash Lohale, the Socius for Apostolic Life. The conference was organised by Fr Jean-Jacques Pérennès, the Order's Vicar for the Middle East and IDEO, the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies. IDEO is a project of the international Order and is mostly staffed by brothers from the Province of France.

The Province of France opened the priory in Cairo in 1928, intending it to be an extension of the Ecole Biblique, the prestigious centre for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem, but international events prevented this plan from being realised. In 1937 the friars decided to use the priory as a centre where they could study Islamic religion and culture, since Al Azhar, one of the most prestigious universities in the Islamic world is located in Cairo and Egyptian culture is also highly regarded in the Middle East. The inspiration of Fr. Georges Anawati O.P. and the other founding friars was that the approach should be non-polemical, for as they looked around the Church they could see that there were many groups that sought to convert Muslims, but none that sought to understand Islam better. They felt that only a centre that did not seek to produce polemics against Islam could come to an in-depth understanding that would be taken seriously in the world of Oriental scholarship. Fr. Anawati’s vision was affirmed by the Second Vatican Council in its document on non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate (In our Age), a document that proclaimed a much more positive view of Islam as a monotheistic religion than had previously been the case.

As our world faces the threat of terrorists who would attempt to use the teachings of Islam to justify their horrific acts of violence against innocent civilians, the approach pioneered by IDEO, of seeking better to understand Islam as the religion that gives spiritual nourishment to over 1.5 billion people, has never been more necessary. This was the message that the IDEO members and their many Muslim friends in Cairo were keen to get across to us new arrivals to the Islamic world.

As I stepped out of the airport into 42C it was immediately clear that I was in a very different environment from the UK. The intensity of the daytime heat meant that the busiest time on the roads and in the street, by far was the night. This made for a noisy nighttime, as a seemingly endless stream of cars and lorries rattled past the Priory, cheerfully hooting to each other as they went by. As I walked the short distance to the Priory from the guesthouse in my habit, I was struck by how friendly and welcoming were the people I encountered on the street, often saying good morning, clearly totally unphased by my Christian garb. That Christians and Muslims are able to live together in relative harmony in Egypt is something that I think I can say impressed all of us who were first-time visitors to the country. I shouldn't have been surprised, however, as I came to discover that in fact there are approximately 12 million Christians in Egypt, 95% of whom are Copts.

The days in Cairo were structured so as to give us maximum exposure to the Islamic world. The mornings were spent visiting religious and cultural sites such as important and historic mosques, Al Azhar University and places of interest like the Pyramids! The afternoons were the academic side and consisted of two lectures with a short break in the middle. We were fortunate enough to be taught by experts in fields as diverse as Quranic textual criticism, Sharia Law and the socio-political state of Egypt. The lectures also included presentations given by Msgr. Antonios Naguib, the Catholic Coptic Patriarch and Msgr. Michael Fitzgerald, the Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt. This was our program for two weeks and it was followed by three days visiting the Red Sea and Mt Sinai. At Sinai we visited the breathtaking St. Catherine's Monastery.

Having spent 17 days in an Islamic milieu, I came away feeling that I had for the first time a grasp of what Islam was really like, at least in one Islamic country. This was the first time that the IDEO centre has ever organised a conference like this and I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn about and experience Islam first hand, it is an experience that I'm sure will be extremely useful in my Dominican life.

The photo above is used with the kind permission of our brothers in the Province of St. Joseph.

Daniel Mary Jeffries O.P.


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