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Church Plays Important Role in 'New Egypt'

By Jennifer Hardy

It's a fascinating time to visit Cairo. People are buzzing with excitement as they talk about change and influencing a new government. Catholic Relief Services in Egypt will parlay that energy into the launch of new job creation and youth-empowerment programs and into efforts to help local organizations grow in scope and efficiency.

Jason Belanger with Bishop Golta

Jason Belanger, CRS' country representative for Egypt, meets with Bishop Youhanna Golta, Patriarchal Auxiliary Bishop of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate in Cairo. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

I traveled to Egypt recently to offer young people social media training and to consider how digital communication can help average Egyptians have a voice in a "new Egypt." With my focus on young people and access to digital technology as a development tool, I was surprised that my most hope-inspiring moment was decidedly low-tech.

Over an ice-cold soda sold in a scratched and chipped glass bottle, CRS Egypt Country Representative Jason Belanger and I met with Bishop Youhanna Golta, Patriarchal Auxiliary Bishop of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate in Cairo. In response to our questions, Bishop Golta detailed his perspective on this time of transition in Egypt and the Catholic Church's place in shaping a peaceful society.

What are some of the biggest challenges in Egypt right now?
Bishop Golta:

The main question is, What do Egyptians want? We have one foot in the old days and one foot in modern times. Some people want to drag us back to the old days, but there are also many people who want to see Egypt move forward.

And for the poorest Egyptians, the most important question is where to find bread and how to eat. Discussions of peace and good government can only happen when people are not hungry.

What about religious conflict?
Bishop Golta:

In Egypt, we have many prayers but little justice. We only think of how to be Muslims and Christians, not how to move forward together as a nation. My doctorate is in Islamic studies and I was a professor at a university for many years. My questions have been similar throughout my academic career: What Church does the Muslim see? For Christians, how can we live peacefully with Muslims?

And how do you currently answer those questions?
Bishop Golta:

It's important to realize that there is no one understanding of Islam. People from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and other places in the Arab world will express their faith in unique ways. To respect Muslims, we should learn about the Qur'an.

The main difficulty with interfaith dialogue in Egypt is that it's always between the elite. Religious leaders must encourage peaceful dialogue between people at all levels of society.

And now, after the January 25 revolution, what is the Church's place in a new Egypt?
Bishop Golta:

Our future is not clear. The revolution gave us hope, and extremists want to extinguish this hope. Extremists want a religious government. But I am positive about the future, because average Egyptians, Muslim and Christian alike, love modernity. So I think we will move forward.

If you could describe your ideal Egypt in the years to come, what would it look like?
Bishop Golta:

I want one Egypt: a free, democratic, civil society. I'm a bishop, but I don't want priests or imams swaying the state. I hope and pray for a separation of church and state. Even the majority of Muslims don't want a religious state.

I'm always an optimist about the future of my country. I believe Egypt will have a good future. My only fear is that Christians will emigrate out of Egypt if the situation becomes too insecure.

What are you doing to promote peace during this time of transition?
Bishop Golta:

I am helping to organize meetings between Muslim and Christian students to talk about peace. We gather 20 students and teachers from four to five schools, so about 100 students spend a full day together. They eat together, learn and do activities to reinforce messages of peace.

Quite frankly, I see these meetings between students as more important for promoting peace than my discussions with imams. The students will bring messages of peace back to their families, schools and neighborhoods.

This is a time of change and transition throughout the Middle East. What advice would you give to Christian leaders throughout the region?
Bishop Golta:

If we want to see true change in the Middle East—and throughout the world—it's not through throwing money at problems. It's by love, justice and a good example. We can't fight extremism through money. We must live together through charity and justice.

I stand in solidarity with my brother bishops and the Church in the Middle East, and I know that they also stand in solidarity with Christians in Egypt.

Jennifer Hardy is CRS' communications officer for digital and new media. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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