The annual gathering of world leaders for the United National General Assembly is occasion for a variety of side meeting for world leaders, the largest and most famous of which is the Clinton Global Initiative.
Yesterday, the Egyptian Mission to the United Nations hosted an open forum for American religious leaders with Egypt’s new president Mohamed Morsi (The Egyptians spell it Morsy.) I share below a summary of the meeting to which I was invited. Since I am a poor stenographer, I have chosen for the most part to paraphrase rather than quote and I take responsibility for this summary report.
The event was moderated by Prof. John Esposito, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Sept. 25.—In a meeting Monday evening with American religious leaders at Egypt’s UN Mission in New York, Egypt’s new president Mohamed Morsi stressed dialogue, tolerance and human rights are the values of the new Egyptian government. These values he argued were in the best traditions of Islam. In Islam’s golden age Muslims favored “tolerance, openness and questioning” that led to the flourishing of science, scholarship and the preservation of ancient learning for the modern world.
In keeping with the Koran, Mr. Morsi argued, “there can be no compliance (coercion) in religion.” The prophet Mohammed extended mercy to all people. For that reason, dialogue is intrinsic to Islam. Dialogue must have as its outcome, he contended, collaboration to build “a dignified life for all.”
Mr. Morsi’s audience consisted largely of Muslim-American, with only five Christian clerics and on rabbi in the group. (The low turnout of other denominations was probably due to the repeated re-scheduling of the dialogue.) The Egypitan president did not respond to a proposal by one American Muslim participant that he issue a fatwa, re-affirming a letter of Mohammed extending protection of Christians and their churches.
A former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi insisted there were “few problems” between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, and he was supported in this by a Coptic cleric in attendance. Reports of these tensions, he asserted, were exaggerated or invented. The former dictatorship he contended “sowed differences” to promote its own political survival.
[There is no doubt exaggeration in reports of Christian-Muslim tensions in Egypt, particularly from elements of the U.S. Coptic community and anti-Islamic advocates of religious liberty. With the help of the Catholic hierarchy in Egypt, I have often resisted such claims in the past. But, there are nonetheless real problems both at the political and social levels, which President Morsi seemed to downplay. Police do not extend their protection to Christians, and government restrictions still prevent the construction and repair of church property. The Muslim Brotherhood may be tolerant (A former head of the Brotherhood served as a member of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, e.g.), but Salafists and local agitators can scarcely said to be open.]
Asked by a Muslim participant whether Egypt is a secular state with separation of church and state, Mr. Morsi explained that Arabic had not term for secular. He described the Arab Republic of Egypt as “a civil state,” offering the following attributes: “a national state that is democratic, civil, constitutional and based on the rule of law.” Theocratic government, he argued, is incompatible with Muslim history where government was the role of civilian rulers.
Mr. Morsi stressed the inclusion and equality of women in Egyptian society. Several times in his prepared statement he spoke of “women and men.”
With respect to Israeli-Egyptian relations, President Morsi declared Egypt abides by its treaties and is working to strengthen its control of the Sinai Peninsula. While he supports a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian question, a two-state solution is insufficient. Resolution of the Palestinian question also requires, he insisted, solving the refugee problem and a final treaty must be part of comprehensive, regional peace.
As to the U.S. policy, Mr. Morsi affirmed that the U.S. has played a positive role in the Arab Spring and the democratic transformation that is still under way in the region, and he expressed hope it will continue to due so. Bi-lateral relations, he proposed, must be “balanced, respectful, honoring the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of each nation, and be a relation of equals.”
In response to a question about his reported telephone conversation with President Obama about rioting at the U.S. Embassy in response to the video “The Innocence of Islam,” he said he had asked the president to find ways for the American people to address hate speech that threatens political instability. He understood, he said, the (U.S.) constitutional constraints against inhibiting hate speech, but believed some solutions must be found for preventing extremists from inciting violence half way round the world.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.