The last week has been filled with many cross-ideological conversations. On Wednesday we heard from Reverend Paul Gordon Chandler of St. John's Episcopal Church in Maadi. He talked to us about Muslim-Christian relations, a lot of which was very similar to the book I read this summer: "A Deadly Misunderstanding" by Mark Siljander. (I asked Reverend Chandler about the book afterward and he said that the author is actually a friend of his.) The main point of both is that Muslims and Christians have a lot more in common than we realize. Many of the practices of Islam were adopted from Christians and Jews of the time of Muhammad, and we share many prophets and concepts. Muslims hold Jesus up as a special prophet who performed miracles and spread the truth, although they do not believe in His divinity, which is very hard to reconcile. Reverend Chandler talked a lot about Mazhar Mallouhi, a "Muslim follower of Christ," and the growing interest among Muslims about the person and message of Jesus. This brings up many interesting discussions about salvation - can those Muslims who believe in Christ and follow His teachings be saved? Or is it necessary to recognize His divinity, death, and resurrection?
Yesterday we met with a group of young Coptic Christians at a retreat center called Anafora outside of Cairo. We spent the day talking about our different traditions and the position of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East. It was so interesting to hear them talk about their traditions, which they trace back to St. Mark. Their faith hasn't changed for thousands of years, and the Copts go all the way back to ancient Egypt and the pharoahs; their language (only used in the Mass) is a combination of Greek and hieroglyphics. Copts practice infant baptism and strictly observe the other sacraments, but they are not to be associated with Catholics or the rest of the Orthodox church. One thing that we took some issue with is the fact that infants are baptized into the religion, which is a completely normal thing for this culture. Children inherit the religion of the parents (for Muslims, specifically the father) and are not really given a personal choice, something that is so central to our culture. In some ways though, the longevity of their tradition is refreshing - the person who founded their church walked and talked with Jesus. It was definitely an interesting day, although the best part was when we were driving back to Cairo, all crowded onto one bus, and everyone started singing. Their were songs in Arabic coming from the front, with Disney songs coming from the back. We even busted out all three national anthems - American, Egyptian, and Canadian. It was great.
Today we spent the day with young Muslims from Islam Online, a moderate, popular website. We discussed topics like U.S.-Middle East relations, culture, relationships, and human rights. It's great to be able to talk person to person and get firsthand opinions about things. Like the higab, or Islamic dress. Before I came to Egypt I thought that wearing headscarves and full length dresses was a way to restrict women, which can be partly true. But so many women here take power in covering themselves. One woman we talked to said it makes men take her seriously, paying attention to her intellect and personality rather than her appearance. There are many other arguments on both sides, but it has been really good for me to hear from women firsthand so I can have a more informed opinion, even if that means that that opinion changes a little.
Tomorrow we head into a week of homestays. I'm still a little nervous, but I've decided that the worst that can go wrong is that I will have to practice a lot of Arabic, and there might be awkward silences sometimes. But it will be a great experience, and it will be so eye-opening to a new part of Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Islamic culture. (So I won't be on the internet for a week most likely. Hold down the fort everyone. Prayers would be appreciated. I'm sure I'll have lots to write about next weekend.)