By Claire Evans – International Christian Concern
During the last year, Egypt’s Christians experienced persecution in ever increasing waves. Though ISIS accounted for the vast majority of deaths, the militants are responsible for only a fraction of the various kinds of persecution facing the country’s Christians. Each incident of persecution has elements of uniqueness, but they usually stem from the same basic belief that Christians are not welcome in Egypt.
This belief is often cultivated and reinforced by a particular educational curriculum used by millions of Muslim students in Egypt. The curriculum is a byproduct of al-Azhar, a religious university whose mosque component began over a millennium ago. The curriculum makes it clear that there is no room for Christians in Egypt, despite public statements by al-Azhar leaders declaring otherwise.
Egyptian Christians have long pointed to al-Azhar curriculum as being one of the strongest original sources of persecution, warning that the curriculum is harmful to all of Egypt, not just Christian minorities. Fadi, who like most of Egypt’s Christians lives in the rural Minya Governorate, said, “Most of al-Azhar’s curricula, which are taught to the students at the Azhar Institutes, incite violence and extremism, create terrorism, incite enmity for and violence against infidels (non-Muslims), and encourage enmity for Christians and even incites their murder… (the curricula) contains books and ideas that are considered a good environment and a breeding ground for terrorists and extremists, in every sense of the word, whether morally or psychologically or intellectually or virtually.”
For this reason, Bishoy, a Christian teacher living in Cairo, warned that “the culture of extremism is not limited to ISIS and murderers of extremist Islamic movements, but is pervasive in many of the Muslim youth and members of our society.” Sadly, impressionable children and young adults are raised “on the false teachings of the fanatic sheikhs of al-Azhar… (who teach) hatred of anyone.” Bishoy continued, “The killing of Christians in Egypt and burning of their churches and homes is committed because of these hostile teachings.”
Increasingly, Christians like Bishoy and Fadi are no longer alone in calling for educational reform. ISIS’s November attack on al-Rawda Mosque showed that extremists have no room for even religious diversity within Islam, leading some Islamic leaders for the first time to stress the need for protecting religious diversity. One such leader, a sheikh, shared after the attack how “the al-Azhar Foundation has some blame for failing to confront radical and extremist ideology better, and sometimes it seems incapable of renewing the religious discourse… I regret to stress that al-Azhar is not willing to renew religious discourse.”
The sheikh continued, “The biggest problem lies in thinking. The current religious discourse must be purged of certain humanities that are incompatible with the current stage and that will help us to confront and refute extremism, to make Egypt a safer country.”
In December, al-Azhar responded to these kinds of claims by launching an informational campaign under the guise of promoting goodwill towards Christians during the Christmas season. Yet at the same time, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute, al-Azhar’s curriculum committee removed textbook content promoting tolerance towards Christians. The director-general of elementary education was fired for including this content. In a statement, he said, “I created content [for the schoolbooks] that encourages acceptance of and respect for the other (religions)… However, the committee rejected this content… they are extremists and incapable of educating (future) generations.”
The question of religious education is a nuanced one, says Amira Mikhail, the founder of Eshad, an online database that documents attacks against religious minorities in Egypt. She elaborated, “They (al-Azhar) try to create youth education programs that turn people away from other religions. The question is though, what is the line between what is theologically correct for a religion, evangelism, and what is sectarian? Is it evangelism or protectionism? Wanting someone to share your faith is not inherently a negative form of sectarianism… The question is whether it crosses that line and enters into the world of negative rhetoric and becomes a form of dangerous protectionism.”
It is exactly the dangerous protectionism of al-Azhar curriculum that has Christians in Egypt so worried. Karam, a Christian from Minya, put it simply: “By these books… the ordinary Muslim is transformed to extremist and terrorist.”
Ultimately, “the obvious purpose behind targeting Coptic Christians is to sour relations between Egypt’s Copts and Muslims, and undermine their legendary unity,” said Moheb, a Christian from Sohag. He added, “Coptic Christians in Egypt have forever been peaceful, forgiving, and tolerant. They never returned violence for violence or loathing for loathing, but have always been armed by nothing other than their faith, love and prayer. This is why it is excruciatingly painful for them to fall victim to such horrifying hate crimes in the name of Islam”
Without a doubt, al-Azhar’s current curriculum poses a dangerous threat to Egyptian society and Christians are especially vulnerable to its negative influence. Until curriculum reforms are achieved, Adel from Minya voices the thoughts of many Christians when he prayed, “May God have mercy on Egypt, deliver it from these terrorist attacks, and protect and guard it against all evil.”