Listening for a change
The Rev. Scott Hill is keen on listening.
At Sunday worship the other day, he said, ‘We have a chance to hear each other. What an amazing gift. Sometimes God’s grace takes over and we have a chance to hear God’s voice.’
In the same sermon at Corydon Presbyterian Church, he said it’s especially important for Americans to listen to other people around the world because ‘we are being heard all over the world,’ through our movies, TV shows, music, advertising, and because of our foreign policies and particularly the war in Iraq.
Often, Hill said, foreigners think Americans don’t care much about people elsewhere in the world. ‘This is our chance to say that we do care about you. Our troops can’t do all our talking for us. Face-to-face talking and listening to others is very important.’
On the other hand, it’s important that Americans see foreigners as they really are, too, not just as we see them on TV news. Take Muslims, for example. We often see them in extreme situations, as screaming, angry, violent people reacting to a fatal bombing in Gaza or an explosion in Iraq and calling for a religious war against Westerners. Of course, Muslims are not like that all the time.
To bring people together to get to know each other, to encourage real listening and interfaith understanding, and to promote the cause of world peace, the Corydon Presbyterian Church held a Muslim-Christian Dialogue on Sunday night, Oct. 3.
Two members of an ‘Interfaith Listening Team’ from Egypt were here to talk about their culture and their faith, listen to Americans talk about theirs, and answer questions. The speakers were Dr. Emad Ramzy Philobbos, a geology professor in Assiut, a large city several hundred kilometers south of Cairo, and Abou Elela Mady, a mechanical engineer and political activist whose house is within sight of the pyramids in Giza.
Dr. Emad grew up in Cairo and attended an Episcopal-Anglican school at which his grandfather had been headmaster. He lived in London for 1-1/2 years and is a Presbyterian church leader. He’s on the board of directors of a Protestant seminary.
Emad has been active in interfaith dialogues for about 10 years. He has worked for years with priests, pastors, imams (Egyptian religious leaders) and ordinary citizens to meet the economic, health, educational and agricultural needs of about 300 villages in southern Egypt. Wherever they worked together, there were no instances of religious violence, he said.
‘The Lord is using me,’ Emad said, adding, ‘quite enough!’
His first experience with ‘how war separates people’ came when he was seven. Barak, the little boy who sat next to him in school, disappeared one day in 1948 when the first war with Israel broke out. Barak’s Jewish family fled their home in Egypt in fear.
Egyptian history goes back at least 5,000 years. Much of its modern history is a series of stifling foreign invasions and occupations, corrupt governments, being a pawn between great Western powers, and, more recently, relying upon Western military and economic aid and also resisting western cultural influences in favor of Islam. Emad said about 10 percent of Egypt’s fast-growing population is Christian (Coptic), and a small percentage of that minority are Catholic and Presbyterian. Egypt has a modern pluralistic society. Christianity came to Egypt in the first century, brought by the Apostle Mark, Hill said. One of the great libraries of the classical world was located in Alexandria.
Emad pointed out that although Islam started in Arabia, Islam does not belong to the Arabs. There are 300 million Arabs in the world, but there are 1.3 billion Muslims throughout the world. Egypt is a civil society, ruled for 23 years now by President Hosni Mubarak, and not a theocracy, although some Islamic extremists would certainly prefer that. Islamic extremists have at times lashed violently with the Mubarak government and killed foreign tourists.
Abou Elela grew up in northern Egypt, was president of the student union at university, and, as a young man, joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a nationalistic revolutionary movement that opposed the autocratic government. In the early1990s, a very violent period in Egypt, the MB broke up into moderate and violent factions. That’s when Abou Elela resigned. He has been jailed at least twice for trying to form a new political party and has also tried unsuccessfully to start a newspaper.
Abou Elala, who ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1995, said there are great differences and also great misunderstandings between our country and Egypt or other Muslim countries, but it is important to re-establish good relations.
He said there are also big differences between Muslim countries and within Islam itself, such as noted in a recent Time magazine cover story. Master terrorist Osama bin Laden, for example, is not like all Muslims, Abou Elada emphasized. ‘He belongs to a small minority. We don’t hate Americans. Sometimes we don’t like American foreign policies. We like democracy and freedom.’
Abou Elala said he rejects violence and wants Egypt to have a parliamentary democracy with open elections and a free press. He has tried to fight political suppression in the courts, but without success thus far. The Mubarak government has tried with mixed success to suppress the Muslim Brother hood and other more extreme groups.
Before the violent period in the early 1990s, Emad said many Egyptians liked Americans and dreamed of immigrating to the United States for the economic opportunities it afforded. His son recently immigrated to Canada because the dismal economy in Egypt has limited his family’s future.
‘Shall I talk frankly?’ Emad asked diplomatically in response to a question. ‘Your government has double standards regarding peace, justice, the killing of innocent people and suffering,’ he said. The U.S. always supports Israel, which is now bulldozing Palestinian houses and putting up a wall that resembles the Berlin Wall. The U.S. never stopped demanding the Soviet Union tear down the Berlin Wall, but says nothing about the Israeli wall.
Emad said the U.S. deplores weapons of mass destruction in the hands of certain enemies, but ‘You don’t seem to worry about atomic bombs in Israel.’ And, he said, the U.S. government, while calling for democracy and freedom in the Middle East, backs a whole host of dictatorships.
Emad said the suicide bomber massacres and rocket attacks against the Israelis are condemned, but rarely do we hear about violence committed by the Israeli Army against innocent Palestinians.
With regard to human rights, Emad said the U.S. demands that other nations respect human rights but doesn’t provide them for prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib Prison.
The professor said many Egyptians are amused by America’s interest in establishing democracies. They think it’s merely ‘camouflage’ for exploiting the natural resources in the Middle East, including the Caucasus.
‘Please excuse us for any negative feelings about your government. You see how we follow your news,’ Emad said apologetically to his hosts.
‘You need to change your policies,’ he said, adding later, ‘You have to give people hope in that region.’
Emad said many Middle Easterns have a view of America that’s shaped by the media: ‘We always see American movies, and they are full of violence and sex.’ The danger is that Middle Easterners see this as a true picture of Western culture.
‘The danger here is generalization. It’s on the other side, too. When you see violence in the Middle East, you think, ‘This is Islam.’ It’s not.’
The Muslim Christian Listening Team’s visit here was sponsored by the Presbyterian Church USA and Community Unity. Similar meetings have taken place in about 12 countries the last two years. About 60 people attended the 2-1/2-hour dialogue at the CPC.
The two Egyptians spoke the next day at Indiana University Southeast.
Hill, who has studied, taught and attended church-sponsored Christian-Muslim dialogues in Egypt, said, ‘We hope to form coalitions, networks and relationships after they have gone home.’