After Al-Azhar snub, Vatican defends calls to protect Mid-East Christians

Rome–Papal officials have defended the Vatican’s call for the protection of Christians in the Middle East following Al-Azhar’s announcement that it would suspend interfaith dialogue with the Holy See.  

In an address following the New Year’s Eve church attack in Alexandria that left more than 20 Coptic Christians dead, Catholic Pope Benedict XVI called for the “protection” of Christians in the Middle East from perceived persecution.

In response to the appeal, Al-Azhar University spokesman Mohammad Rifaa al-Tahtawi on Friday declared that the university had suspended all talks with the Vatican indefinitely.

Al-Tahtawi said the move came in reaction to what Al-Azhar regarded as “interference” in Egypt’s domestic affairs. Egypt’s Copts, he stressed, enjoy protection under the same laws that protect all Egyptian citizens.

Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican’s press office, for his part, told reporters that “the pontifical council for inter-religious dialogue’s line of openness and desire to dialogue is unchanged. The council is in the process of gathering the necessary information in order to understand the situation well.”

The Vatican sees its role in international diplomacy as a service to humanity, say papal officials.

“The Catholic Church's diplomacy and activities have nothing to do with international power politics,” said one unnamed Vatican official. “The Vatican does not use the same tools as other states, and it does not wish to pressure Egypt.”

Papal nuncios and the Vatican’s diplomatic representatives around the world do not only aim to defend Christian interests, but also strive to promote common principles of humanity and universal rights, he added.

“The Vatican is not a political power but a moral authority that pursues pacific goals,” he stressed. “We are looking for interfaith dialogue in order to promote peace in the world.”

The official went on to say that the pope’s address following the Alexandria attack had affirmed that the targeting of Middle Eastern Christians would have adverse consequences for all the people of the region, including both Christians and Muslims.

Papal appeals for the protection of minorities have not been directed at the Middle East alone. Benedict has also recently pointed to violations of religious freedoms in Europe, calling upon European countries to show greater respect for freedom of belief. 

“The Holy Father…has asked all governments to give due protection to all their citizens,” said Lombardi, “and, in particular, to those who do not belong to the religion of the majority.”

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