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Optimistic about co-existence
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 02 - 2015

Andre Zaki is not your average churchman. His extensive scholarship focuses on contemporary politics and religion. He obtained a doctorate in the philosophy of religion and politics from the UK's Manchester University in 2003 and is the author of two books on the region, Political Islam, Citizenship, and Minoritiesand The Future of Arab Christians in the Middle East. Married with three children, Zaki is the director of the Anglican Agency and head of the League of Anglican Churches in the Middle East.

He spoke to Al-AhramWeeklyfollowing his election as head of the Anglican Church in Egypt.

How do you see the situation in Egypt?
I am optimistic, and this optimism is based on solid ground and is not just an emotional construct. Our society is going through a revolutionary and transitional phase that is unrivalled since 1952, one that has combined demands for freedom and justice with the overthrow of the regime but not of the state. This shows how aware Egyptians are of their bonds to the state. I am optimistic because the people who rose up twice and brought down two presidents have now found their voice.

Have you seen new developments since the 30 June Revolution in 2013?
I see the emergence of new Christian-Muslim relations that go beyond the public embracing and external appearances. There is a strong will to reject fanaticism and extremism. A new attitude has emerged towards the Copts, who in the past have been accused of being agents of the West or of loving America more than Egypt.
These changes have come about due to the great sacrifices made by the Copts, who have seen their churches burned and pillaged and their women and children abducted. The Copts have made such sacrifices for Egypt, refusing to complain because they don't want the country to fall prey to sectarianism. All of this makes me optimistic about President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi's Egypt.

How do you view religious discourse in Egypt?
Unfortunately, it is backward, detached from reality, and needs a lot of revision.

How can we fight terrorism in the region?
Enhancing security is important, but it is not the only way. We also need to confront terrorism on the terrain of ideology, through renewing religious discourse and creating new understanding. We also need economic action. It is not the case that all terrorists are poor, but many studies indicate that poverty is connected with extremism.

Some people say that the Muslim Brotherhood will not let Al-Sisi succeed, and want to undermine Egypt.
Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor anyone else can control Egypt or make it fail. Egypt has proved itself to be too powerful for that. It is not fair to judge Al-Sisi so early in his rule. He came to power through the support of a large political power base, and this power base is going to be patient with him. They will be rewarded, God willing.

There are countries that want to stir up trouble in Egypt.
They cannot do so. Nothing they have done thus far has been able to bring Egypt down or stop the implementation of the roadmap. Egypt is bigger and stronger than terrorism.

Would you be willing to engage a terror group in dialogue?
When you believe in dialogue, you also believe in coexistence and building bridges. But we cannot hold a dialogue with groups that the state considers to be breaking the law or engaging in terror. If the state bans these groups we cannot hold a dialogue with them since we are an organisation that operates under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

How do you see the future of civil society in Egypt?
The situation is unclear. I imagine that the revival in Egypt must take place through the participation of civil society. There are active social organisations, and I would like to see more. I want to see a civil society that accepts supervision. I also want to see a civil society that is free and unblemished.

But ordinary people do not notice the role that civil society is playing.
I believe that ordinary people will recognise that role more and more.

You have sometimes criticised the media and sometimes praised it.
It is wrong to patronise the public. I believe that some satellite TV stations and presenters have been telling the public what to think, and this is unacceptable. But the media played an undeniable role in the 25 January and 30 June Revolutions.

Do you oppose the restoration of Egypt's relations with Iran?
One cannot object to the restoration of relations with any country in the course of legitimate diplomacy. But experience shows that some countries insist on being hostile to Egypt, which is not good for mutual relations. Iran is a threat to Gulf security, and Egypt cannot side with any country that threatens Gulf security. It is as simple as that.

Will you provide the names of Anglican Church members for appointment to parliament? Or are you in touch with parties willing to include Anglicans on their lists?
We don't want any contradiction. We are against the involvement of the churches in politics. The role of the Church is to encourage the public to participate in elections, whether for parliament or for the professional syndicates. We have not asked the state for anything, and the state has not asked us for a list of candidates. I don't have the right to side with one party or ask Anglicans to join one party.
The Church is a place for worship, not politics. If the churches go into politics, they will be jeopardising their original role. Mosques also have no business getting into politics. The media should also enlighten people about politics, but not tell them what to do.

How do you see the future of revolutionary groups in Egypt?
Egypt cannot live in a permanent state of revolution. The revolutionary forces are part of the new legitimacy, and their role will end the day the revolution's goals are achieved. I am against imprisoning anyone offering different views. But if the revolutionaries or activists make mistakes, they should accept the penalties.

What are your plans for the Anglican Church in Egypt?
My first priority is the Anglican presence in Egypt. I am aiming for a wider circle of contacts that reflects Anglican participation on the spiritual, political and social planes. There is also the matter of expanding the circle of activities of the Anglican League in Egypt and opening new doors for service. We plan to create specialised committees to boost ties between the League and local and international churches.

What is the salary of the head of the Anglican community?
The leadership of the community is voluntary and unpaid.
How many Anglicans are there in Egypt?
Well over a million.

Does the Anglican Church in Egypt follow the American churches on matters of marriage and divorce?
No. The Egyptian Church is conservative and allows divorce only in cases of adultery or conversion to other creeds. Those who say that the marriages of Anglicans are nonreligious are wrong. We do not recognise secular marriages, even when other Anglicans want us to. The claim that Anglicans can get married and divorced freely is a lie.

How do you see the state of dialogue among Christian churches?
I think that the existing climate is satisfactory.

Do you see unsatisfactory signs?
I do not worry much about the individual opinions of one clergyman or another. As a whole, the Copts opt for interchurch peace and unity while maintaining their creed and tenets. There is a need among the leaders of the three churches in Egypt — Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican — to maintain unity.

What is the role of the Anglican Agency in the process of domestic and international dialogue?
The Agency is interested in dialogue on the local level as a means to building bridges and reinforcing coexistence. Domestic dialogue is not just about finding common ground, but also about recognising the right to be different. No amount of dialogue can resolve major sectarian tensions, but it can defuse such tensions and come up with timely solutions, as well as create a climate that can accommodate pluralism and the acceptance of others.
On the international level, the Agency is interested in popular diplomacy. It tries to create new understanding and offer a free voice from Egypt's civil society to partners in the West, the focus being on correcting erroneous notions and providing new concepts about popular resolve.

How is the Agency funded?
Foreign funding is not a sin. The government receives foreign funding. Funding for the Agency comes from three sources: churches in Europe and America, civil society organisations in the EU and US, and governments such as those of Denmark, Spain, Greece, or the US through [the US Agency for International Development] USAID.
Foreign funding represents 45 per cent of the Agency's budget and the rest comes from its own resources. We don't take money without the approval of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, so the government knows everything about us. We seek to reduce foreign finance and rely mainly on self-funding.
Is the funding conditional?
Our sources of funding do not impose any conditions on us. If they do, we cannot accept the funding. We do not accept conditions from governments or foreign organisations. The Agency is 100 per cent Egyptian.

What services does the Agency provide to the poor? Is it only active in Upper Egypt?
The Agency is particularly interested in vulnerable groups in the villages of Upper Egypt. It tries to improve their living conditions through developmental, environmental and cultural projects. We also provide loans for small projects to help people boost their living standards.
The Agency is active in 12 governorates, including Greater Cairo, Alexandria, Beni Sweif, Fayoum, Minya and Asyut. It also provides several services. We have an eye hospital and an ambulance fitted out as a mobile ophthalmic clinic that doctors can use to examine patients and offer treatment. Cases that need specialised care are referred to the hospital.

What does the Agency do for village women and children?
Women and children are at the top of the Agency's priorities, as they are the most vulnerable. The Agency offers loans to nearly 54,000 people, 70 per cent of whom are women, and 95 per cent are single mothers. Women also receive professional training and can join literacy classes.
There are special programmes for vulnerable children, working children and homeless children, so that they may get the educational, economic and social rights guaranteed by the state. Last year we offered care to 150 gifted children, educated 150 families on the perils of female circumcision and supplied water pipes to 70 families in the village of Atsa just north of Minya.

What is the extent of your cooperation with the various Muslim religious institutions in Egypt?
Since the Agency was founded, it has worked in partnership with various government bodies and Christian and Islamic religious institutions in various fields, with a view to achieving comprehensive development in villages and communities.
For more than ten years, we have engaged in cooperation with various religious institutions, especially the Ministry ofAwqaf(religious endowments) and Al-Azhar, through the ministry's support for the activities and programmes of the intercultural dialogue forum that brings together Muslim and Christian men of religion. We also cooperate with the Mufti and Al-Azhar University.

What is the importance of cultural dialogue between the Muslim world and the West?
There are many theories about the type of relations that should exist between the West as a political, economic and cultural realm, and the Islamic world with its different countries and peoples. The West needs us because of our strategic location and also because of the energy and oil in the Muslim world.
We need the technology, industry, education and other achievements of the West. So there is a need for a genuine dialogue between the West and the Islamic world. There is a need to promote mutual understanding and to find common ground for intercultural communication.

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