During Egypt’s celebrations of Christmas and commemorations of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (3 January), Rt Revd Mouneer Anis, Anglican Bishop of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa, was struck by signs of a new spirit of friendship between Muslims and Christians. Here is his new year letter:
As I was preparing for the All Saints Cathedral Christmas Eve Service, I received a gift—a box of candies from a neighbour. The neighbour, a Muslim, had sent a box of “halawet el mouled,” sweets traditionally given on the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed, which falls close to Christmas this year. The next day, my neighbor came in person to wish me a Merry Christmas.
The Christmas services of the Cathedral are attended by a number of representatives from various government agencies and other religious groups. On Christmas Eve, we welcomed a representative from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his cabinet, a representative from Pope Tawadrous II of the Coptic Orthodox Church and from the Grand Imam. The Governor of Cairo and the Minister of Local Development attended personally. This year, though, the imam of the local mosque, just one block away, sent a request. He, too, wanted to wish the church Merry Christmas.
On Christmas Day, the imam and eleven worshippers from the mosque came to the offices of the diocese. The group stated that it is important to recover the spirit of unity that characterised centuries of Muslim-Christian relationships in Egypt, which has long been a religiously diverse society. “We must put our hands together for the future of our beloved country, Egypt,” one of the visitors said. I responded by saying that when I hear the call for prayer, Allahu Akbar, “God is great,” I am reminded of two things: I am challenged to pray regularly, and I remember that God is great. Christians, too, believe that Allahu Akbar. And if we all believe that God is great, we can let God be God, and refrain from judging others.
The imam left me with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and an invitation to visit them at the mosque. Later that evening, when I went to celebrate Christmas at St. Mark’s Pro-Cathedral in Alexandria, I encountered a group of fifteen Muslim young people who attended the service in order to share the joy of Christmas with their Christian friends. Over the next several days, I saw Christians and Muslims posting greetings and well wishes to each other on facebook, accompanied by images of Muslims and Christians holding hands, Christmas trees, and “halawet el mouled.”
On January 3rd, the birthday of prophet Muhammad, the Cathedral clergy and I went to the mosque to return the imam’s holiday visit. The worshippers told us it was the first visit ever made by clergy to the mosque. We talked about the importance of religious harmony in Egypt. Our Episcopal Church in Giza also offered greetings to the mosque across the street, giving “halawet el mouled” to worshipers exiting the building. Both of these events were covered in local newspapers.
In the media, we often hear only the stories of clashes between religious groups, violence done to one another, tensions that erupt into aggression. But we also experience stories of grace, friendship, and kindness. Following many tumultuous years, I am encouraged to see so many signs of a new spirit among Muslims and Christians in Cairo, and throughout Egypt. As we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, I invite you to pray with me for peace in the Middle East, remembering that God is great, and He is with us.
May the Lord bless you!
This article is reproduced with permission of the Jerusalem and Middle East Church Association(JMECA).