Ten years of Egyptian Family House (Bayt al-Ayla)

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Sun, 2021-11-14
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The Azhar al-Sherif and Egyptian churches celebrated on November 8 that they established the Bayt al-Ayla [Bayt al-ʿĀ’ila] ten years ago, the main organization for dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. The idea for the Bayt al-Ayla was born after the terrible bomb attack on worshippers of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on January 1, 2011, that claimed the lives of 23 people and injured 97 people. The attack also resulted in some angry Coptic youth throwing stones at the Sharq al-Madina mosque opposite of the church and others, Muslims and Christians, advocating a unity of all Egyptians regardless of their religious conviction. The attack on the Two Saints Church was the deadliest act of violence against Coptic Christians since the massacre of Christians in al-Kosheh in the year 2000. Coptic Orthodox Pope H.H. Pope Shenouda [Shinūda] (1923-2012), Grand Imam of the Azhar Dr. Ahmed al-Tayib [Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib] and Minister of Endowments Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq [Ḥamdī Zaqzūq] (1933-2020) decided to establish the Bayt al-Ayla in response to this violence.

Cornelis Hulsman and Fr. Dr. Giuseppe Scattolin visiting Coptic Orthodox Bishop Armia [Armiyā] of the Bayt al-Ayla


Dr. Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib says that the aim of the Bayt al-Ayla was to form a bastion “against imminent strives besetting the country, and already destroying neighboring countries and societies, even demolishing civilizations that had their roots in ancient times and eras. Such strives have claimed the lives of millions, displaced many others and left thousands of widows and orphans.”  Dr. Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib referred to attacks on Christians in other countries in the region including an attack of Jihadists on the Catholic Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in December 2010 resulting in the death of 58 worshippers, priests, policemen and bystanders.


Egyptian authorities responded fast. “Within a few months, the then Prime Minister issued a decree to establish a joint body called the Egyptian Family House co-chaired by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, with Al-Azhar Headquarters in Cairo as its premises.”


The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries rapidly gained the support of Islamists and showed the vulnerability of Christians. Christians in Egypt feared the ascent of the Muslim Brothers to power in 2011-2013 and many left the country. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 hundreds of thousands of Christians fled to other countries. Instability makes Christians leave while stability offers hope for the future. Egyptian authorities, Azhar and churches have cooperated to strengthen stability in Egypt.


Egyptian authorities, Azhar and churches are to be complimented that they have not shelved the plans for the development of the Bayt al-Ayla in the years of uncertainty and unrest but continued building the Bayt al-Ayla which now has sixteen branches in fifteen Egyptian governorates. This means that the Bayt al-Ayla is no longer the initiative of leaders in Cairo but has gained root in all parts of Egypt.


I am very grateful for my friend and Azhar scholar Dr. Kamal Boraiqa Abdelsalam Hassan [Kamāl Burīqaʿ ʿAbd al-Salām] sending me the English translation of the speech of Dr. Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib . The French translation can be found here. It is interesting to read that he has to defend the Bayt al-Ayla against allegations that they want to merge Christianity and Islam under the designation of one single "Abrahamic" religion. Outside Egypt one hears such wishes to merge both religions but in Egypt neither Muslims nor Christians are in favor of this but want to preserve their own identity. Instead, the Shaykh al-Azhar stated, the Bayt al-Ayla is “meant to be in defense of the Egyptian citizens’ right to live in security, peace and stability.” Dr. Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib highlighted the right of “freedom of belief, notably the freedom of choice of religious faith.”


Dr. Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib stated “that the agreement of humanity to one religion or one divine message is impossible, given that people differ radically in belief, mindset, language, and color,” and neither is this needed. “If your Lord had so willed, He would have made all people one nation [of believers], but they would continue to [choose to] be different.” (Qur’an 11, 118). The Almighty Allah has created disbelieving as well as believing humans, as He Almighty says, at the beginning of Surah At-Taghābun, “It is He Who has created you all; yet, some of you are disbelievers and some believers. Allah is All Seeing of what you do.” (Qur’an, 64: 2).


We are all different and we should not try to force our beliefs on others. In this context, the Shaykh al-Azhar says, “we hold the right understanding of the Qur’anic verses: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2, 256); “For each one of you We have assigned a legislation and a path” (Qur’an 4, 48), etc.”


The speech of Dr. Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib was followed by a speech of H.H. Pope Tawadros [Tawāḍrūs], who also highlighted the importance of the work of the Bayt al-Ayla.


We have repeatedly reported about the excellent work of the Bayt al-Ayla but sadly the work of the Bayt al-Ayla is not well-known outside Egypt.


On November 5 I attended a meeting of the Catholic Society of Ecumenism in the Netherlands. Catholic Bishop Gerard de Korte made inquiries about dialogue with Islam after the tumultuous revolutions in various Arab countries. I have highlighted the importance of the Bayt al-Ayla in this meeting but would wish it would be better known outside Egypt.



November 14, 2021

Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report