Grand Imam Affirms ‘Religious Pluralism’ as Egyptian Christians Flee Muslim Persecution

Egyptian grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb speaks during an interview with a journalist of the Agence France Presse (AFP) on June 9, 2015 in Florence. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

In a strange juxtaposition of news stories, hundreds of Egyptian Copts have fled the Sinai Peninsula after a series of recent Islamist attacks, just as the highest Sunni imam in Cairo is asserting Islam’s openness to a religiously pluralistic state.

During an Islamic-Christian congress held in Cairo from February 28 to March 1, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb (pictured), the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque, claimed that “Islam does not advocate a religious state” and “is not incompatible with religious pluralism.”

The concept of “citizenship” is not foreign to Islam, insisted the imam, but rather is part of its foundations. In earlier joint declarations from the al-Azhar University, el-Tayeb stated that Muslims and non-Muslims share equality in their rights and duties.

A closing statement on Islamic-Christian “Mutual Coexistence” read by el-Tayeb Wednesday asserted that Islam must not be associated with terrorism.

“The conference demands that those who link Islam and other religions with terrorism immediately stop,” he said.

“Judging Islam by the criminal actions of some who associate with it opens the door to describing all religions as terrorism, which justifies extremist modernists’ argument that societies must be rid of religion,” he said.

Meanwhile, not far away, hundreds of Egyptian Christians have abandoned their homes on the Sinai Peninsula following a spate of jihadist attacks. In February alone, seven Christians were shot, beheaded or burned to death by Muslim radicals in the city of El Arish.

The Islamic State has changed its tactics from attacking soldiers and police to targeting Christian civilians in the North Sinai province, and recently issued a message calling for attacks on Christians across Egypt.

An affiliate of the Islamic State called for war on the Coptic minority after bombing a church in December 2016, killing 29 people.

The Coptic Church has condemned the murders, accusing the Islamist group of trying to “divide the Egyptians.”

The joint statement released after the Islamic-Christian congress Wednesday condemned all violence carried out in the name of religion, and the Grand Imam denounced the recent Sinai attacks, calling Coptic Christians victims of violence “in their own land.”

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