Monday, May 2, 2016

From Cairo to Istanbul: A Reflection on Multi-Faith Society

In Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
On Friday, I returned from a two-week vacation in Egypt and Istanbul during one of those rare windows when a priest feels he can take time off without feeling too guilty. It was a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime trip. I felt a bit like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, experiencing just about every form of transportation imaginable. I rode a camel past the great pyramid of Cheops, slept aboard a felucca floating down the Nile from Aswan, zipped down Alexandria's congested side streets in a tuk tuk, and soared above the Valley of the Kings in a hot air balloon. And, of course, there were the more pedestrian airplanes, buses, trains, and ferries that shuttled me from historic site to historic site.

We covered a lot of ground. Ninety-five percent of the Egyptian population lives in about 4% of the country's territory--the fertile land on either side of the Nile--so, we saw nearly the entire nation, from Cairo in the north to the Sudanese border on the south, from Hurghada on the Red Sea coast to Alexandria on the Mediterranean. As soon as I landed at O'Hare, people wanted to know what I had seen.
  • The Sphinx. Check.
  • King Tut's gold funeral mask. Check.
  • Luxor and Karnak. Check.
  • Abu Simbel. Check.
  • Hagia Sophia. Check.
I saw it all. And was it hot? folks asked. "The heat, my God, THE HEAT," was all I could think to say. Around 100 degrees everyday in Egypt. But those are not the stories I want to tell. This is neither a travelogue--although I did write one--nor a bucket list on which I can now cross off signature achievements. This is a reflection on living peacefully in a multi-faith society in an era of extremism. I bet you didn't see that coming.

Everyone wants to know if I felt safe. After all, this is Egypt, where Mubarak was ousted a mere five years ago during the Arab Spring that saw the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a failed, short-lived experiment in Islamist government. I admit that, prior to the trip, I was nervous; but the Egypt I found wasn't the Egypt I expected. There wasn't one moment when I felt endangered because I was an American or a Christian in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. No, I didn't fear being abducted by ISIS. In fact, I found both the Egyptians and the Turks warm, hospitable people who were thrilled to see American tourists. In Hurghada, we stayed at a vast, high-end resort with the largest swimming pool I have ever seen, and it was empty, I mean EMPTY. Virtually no one in the lobby, by the pool, or on the beach. And this was usually the high season. But since 2011, people are too frightened to travel to Egypt, except apparently the Russians. Tourism, once Egypt's largest industry, has sadly been gutted.

Sherif explaining hieroglyphics to our tour group.
One of the most sobering lessons I learned on this vacation is that Americans are grossly ignorant and misinformed about the nature of Islam and the state of the Arab world. Our tour guide for most of the trip was an Egyptologist, named Sherif, who instructed us in hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian religion, and the development of Islam in Egypt. Why are most of the faces of the gods and pharaohs scratched out at Kom Ombo? Because the Christians and Muslims were hot to discredit and efface evidence of the pagan religion they sought to supplant. Why are the statues of so many gods and pharaohs in the Egyptian Museum missing their noses and beards? Christians wanted to vandalize these ancient Egyptian symbols of power and wisdom, which were associated with the traditional religion. Both Christians and Muslims have a lot of vandalism to answer for.

With local children near Karnak
But Sherif also shared later stories of Muslims and Christians living together successfully in a multi-faith society. About 90% of Egypt's population is Muslim; the other 10% is Christian, mostly Coptic. Sherif described how the two faith communities respect and support each other. If there is a funeral, people from the neighborhood, Muslims and Christians, attend. If a couple gets married, the neighborhood takes up a collection from everyone, both Muslims and Christians, so that the newlyweds can open a business or begin to build a nest egg. During Ramadan, many Christians fast out of sensitivity to their Muslim brothers and sisters who have to work--many in the extreme heat--without food or water. And in both Egypt and Turkey, there were signs all over alerting us that the Pascha was nigh. I think the Kingdom of God looks something like this.

This is not, of course, to view a complex, multi-faith society through rose-tinted glasses. I am not recommending that we become dewey-eyed idealists, but to recognize the danger of painting Muslims or any group as the evil "other". The image the American media portrays of Muslims burning American flags and beheading journalists is xenophobic hype that uses religious extremism and incidents of terrorism to essentialize a whole class of people for political gain. Donald Trump's Islamophobic and isolationist rhetoric bears no resemblance to the rank-and-file Muslims I encountered in both Egypt and Turkey. They were mostly lovely people, who worked and prayed in varying degrees, like Christians or Jews or Buddhists.

In Little Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
Instead of extremists, I met people who were kind and hopeful, whose children played joyfully in a mosque courtyard in Old Islamic Cairo while worshipers conducted their purifying ablutions before kneeling to God in prayer. I witnessed Coptic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Christians observing the sacraments in their churches down the block from their Muslim brothers and sisters. I entered Little Hagia Sophia to be greeted by a local who couldn't wait to get my shoes off and give me an impromptu tour, to show me the cistern that had supplied water to the baptismal font, to guide me through the postures of Muslim prayer, and to translate both the Greek and the Arabic on the building's walls.

This trip became a sort of pilgrimage, not only to architectural sites that I had longed to witness with my own eyes, but to people striving to live faithfully with God and each other in an era that emphasizes estrangement and mistrust. There were moments when I felt the Egyptians and the Turks were realizing the peace and unity of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, so much better than we have been doing here. I perceived that God was present in Greek, and Arabic, and Latin, and Turkish. In the current political climate, we need to challenge the deeply divisive and dehumanizing speech we hear in the daily news cycle and in the public square. Hear what the Spirit is saying to God's people.

May the peace and joy of the Resurrection be with you all.
Fr. Ethan+


  1. Very moving reflection Father. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Very moving reflection Father. Thank you for sharing it.