An interview with Father Samir Khalil Samir
Father Samir Khalil Samir, a Jesuit priest and specialist in Islam, and a professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Rome, visited the Canadian national office of ACN last Thursday (20 April 2017). An Egyptian himself, born in Cairo, he gave us this interview in light of the forthcoming visit of the Pope to Egypt. We asked his views on the papal visit, on the importance of dialogue between Islam and Christianity and the fear of seeing the Middle East emptied of Christians. Here are some extracts from the interview:
He spoke to Mario Bard, of ACN Canada.
ACN: What would you say to Pope Francis in regard to his approaching visit to Egypt? Would you tell him to stay in Rome or to go ahead with his visit?
Father Samir: Being the man he is, I think he must go. He is not someone who is afraid. At the same time, considering the possibility of an assassination attempt, I believe that Egypt will do the impossible to protect him and ensure that there are no dangerous elements around – if only for their own sense of honour. Looking at it this way, I think that everything should go ahead normally.
And besides, there is the character of Pope Francis himself, who might well say, “I’m not afraid of anything and I am in the midst of the people. And if I should die, well, I am like anyone else, simply because I happen to be in this place [where there is an attack].” So that might explain why he has decided to go ahead with his visit.
Moreover, for a long time now he has wanted to re-knit the ties between the Vatican and Islam. And this is what he told me personally when I had a half-hour conversation with him a few months ago. He told me, “Why is it that I insist on the fact that Islam is a religion of peace? Because we need first of all to rekindle our friendship with the Muslims and with Al Azhar.”
Why is it necessary to “re-knit our ties”. What has happened?
Let me recall the context: there was the attack in Alexandria on the Coptic Church at Christmas, six years ago. Someone blew himself up and there were dozens of deaths. A few days later Pope Benedict XVI, in a meeting with the ambassadors at the Holy See, said: “I call on the president of the Egyptian Republic to protect the Christians.” In response Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, the rector of the Al Azhar University, declared that it was unacceptable for the Pope to interfere in Egyptian politics and broke off relations with Rome. Today, after a number of fruitless attempts, relations have resumed. And it was the principal aim of Pope Francis to re-establish relations with Islam and with the Al Azhar University in particular, which represents the majority of Muslims in the world – 80% or so. It represents an unassailable moral and intellectual authority for them.
Father Samir, why is it important to maintain an interreligious dialogue with Islam?
First of all because Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with over 1.5 billion Muslims scattered in almost every country of the world. We cannot ignore it. Second, because Islam is a monotheistic religion, alongside Judaism and Christianity. And hence we have to be able to engage in dialogue with them. That is the essential aspect, I think. It is not a question of a political goal. It boils down to saying: let us endeavour to understand one another. In just the same way as we maintain a dialogue with the Jews.
People are saying that the Middle East is in the process of becoming emptied of Christians. What can be done to change the way the wind is blowing? Even many Muslims do not want this situation to come about.
Most Muslims say, “We need the Christians”. Recently there was a radio broadcast in Egypt which impressed everyone. The theme of the eight-minute programme was the Christian schools which educated the intelligentsia of Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries.
People can also see Lebanon, which is the only country in the Arab world with a certain degree of parity, precisely because it was the Christians that built it – even though today they represent no more than 35% of the population. In the Parliament the Muslims want to retain the balance of 64 Muslims and 64 Christians, because they maintain that this is essential. It is recognised by all the Muslims who think about it.
Besides, as to the disappearance of Christians in the Middle East, in Egypt it is they who are, so to speak, the indigenous ones! People are aware that if they wish to maintain the national conscience, they cannot eliminate the Christians. Unfortunately, for reasons that are political, economic and religious, the Christians are leaving, more and more. And what is happening at the moment is what is wanted by ISIS/Islamic state/Daesh. But they are fanatics. Globally speaking, the Muslims are not fanatics. They lack the courage to say that these people should be arrested. Instead of that they say: ‘it has nothing to do with Islam’, which resolves nothing. But in their heart of hearts, the majority of Muslims say, “no, it is shameful!”
What we must do now, if they are to stay, is to help them so that they can stay on in their own homes. In Egypt that is not a major problem, owing to the large number of Christians (almost 10 million). But in Iraq and Syria, where the homes of the Christians have been destroyed, it takes enormous courage to stay on in the country. That is what the patriarchs are doing, including Patriarch Sako of the Chaldeans, of Babylon. He is fighting with all his strength to prevent the Christians from emigrating, to encourage them to remain, to save the local Church. And it is the same thing in Syria.
We have to help them to stay on. To help them financially as far as we are able, but also to help them morally by supporting them and attempting to put a stop to this crime which is ISIS.”
ACN is planning to help 3000 young people from all over Egypt who will travel on pilgrimage to Cairo to be present for the visit of Pope Francis on 28 and 29 April. Their visit began on Tuesday 25 April and includes liturgical celebrations in various different shrines on the road to Cairo, celebration of Holy Mass, confessions and a visit to the hospitals in Cairo the day before the arrival of the Pope. The group will include 250 representatives from every Catholic diocese in Egypt, in addition to the 1,000 participants from the capital itself.