In a shocking statement – deemed by some as a mere attempt to boost his popularity as contender for the top job in UNESCO – Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni called for accepting earthly religions. During a meeting with the British Egyptian Business Association, Hosni said: “We have to accept non-heavenly religions, because this is an integral part of freedom of faith. If we dismiss these religions, we would be ignorant and uncivilized.” To a remark on the absence of a museum for Jewish antiquities in Egypt Hosni replied that antiquities pertaining to Jewish history in Egypt were too few to warrant the establishment of a museum; they could be housed in a compartment in one of the synagogues in Egypt. As to Jewish civilization, he said: “Egypt never displayed any bias against any religion whatsoever but has, throughout its history, absorbed and tolerated all religions. Jews have been in Egypt since Pharaonic times. We are not willing to appear as if we do not accept ’other’ civilizations; we accept Jewish religion, heritage and thought. We accept Jewish civilisation regardless of politics,” he stressed. Hosni ended by asserting the significance of cultural diversity.
Hosni’s announcements triggered a wave of criticism by Al-Azhar scholars and clergy. They pointed fingers at him for issuing statements that only served to confuse public opinion.
Mansour Rifaie, former deputy to the Minister of Religious Endowments, told Watani that Hosni’s opinion was utterly unacceptable; the very term “earthly religion” implied these religions were created by man rather than God. “It is not acceptable that a responsible minister should issue such statements,” Dr Rifaie said. “Hinduism, Buddhism, or other such religions are ’invented’, created by people, neither States nor peoples recognize them. Members of these religions usually practice their religious rites clandestinely, he claimed. In Egypt, the Baha’i religion exists in a secretive way even though the media gives Baha’is a wide space to express themselves, while declining to make people aware of the dangers Baha’is pose.”
On a contrary note, Salah Eissa, editor-in-chief of the Cairo weekly al-Qahira, issued by the Culture Ministry, said that Hosni’s announcements are in harmony with the Egyptian Constitution as well as the International Convention for Human Rights. As for the harsh criticism launched against Hosni, Eissa described it as part of the cultural battle against fundamentalism that is being waged in Egyptian society. “Islam stipulates freedom of belief,” Eissa said. “We have strong economic ties with countries where non-heavenly religions prevail such as China.” Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and the like are erroneously dubbed ’religions’ although they are in fact philosophies, he explained. “This mistake implies a falsification of language and creates an unfavourable view of them as man-made.”
Basic tenet of Christianity
Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, former secretary-general of the left-wing Tagammu Party, said that the Culture Minister’s statement was in harmony with mainstream international politics, where freedom of belief represents an unquestionable right. “As for al-Azhar scholars,” Shukr remarked, “they fling accusations of infidelity far and wide; they even allege Shia and Copts are infidels. It is not strange therefore that Hosni’s announcement is met with such strong opposition.” Shukr did not rule out, however, that among the motives behind Hosni’s statement was to enhance his position as a candidate for the post of UNESCO general manager.
As for the opinion of the Church, Father Abdel-Messih Baseet of the church of the Holy Virgin in Mostorod confirmed that every person was entitled to choose what to believe in with absolute freedom. It was the Church’s responsibility to preach its faith, he told Watani, but people were free whether or not to accept it. “We do not have to embrace other beliefs in order to respect those who belong to them. We must accept these beliefs even if we disagree with them. Freedom of belief,” he said, “is a basic tenet of Christianity.”
Watani thought of guaging the people on the street regarding the matter. Two questions were pertinent: were people in the first place aware of non-heavenly religions? So what did they think of the Culture Minister’s statement?
Sayed, a newspaper seller, said he knew nothing about ’earthly religions’. When he knew about Hosni’s declaration, Sayed was critical since, he said, ’earthly religions’ did not believe in God.
As for Mohammed Mohsen, a university graduate, he said he actually admired non-heavenly religions such as Buddhism. He believes earthly religions are part of human heritage, and that all religions – including earthly ones – should be tolerated. Mohsen said that at one point he had worked in Dubai where he found that all religions peacefully coexisted without any objection from anyone.
“Religion can only derive from God, otherwise it is a human invention,” Al-Sayed Mo’men, a worker, said. “The entire issue is an Israeli attempt to deviate Muslim people from their true faith,” he added.