In tense Cairo, an oasis of religious dialogue
13 June 2013, 18:48
Cairo - With its shaded courtyard and quiet library, Cairo's
Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies is an oasis of research, aimed at
fostering Islamic-Christian ties in a country riven with political and
The internationally-reputed IDEO institute aims to encourage
not just study, but dialogue between the religions, in a context where
"Islam can be scary and where a country like Egypt is trying hard to find
its democratic voice", director Jean-Jacques Perennes said.
The brick building surrounded by greenery is located
symbolically in a neighbourhood close to Al-Azhar - Sunni Islam's highest seat
of learning - and the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.
Created at the request of the Vatican in 1953, IDEO
celebrated its 60th anniversary this week amid tensions in Egypt.
The celebrations come two years after the uprising that
toppled president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and led to last June's election of the
first Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.
"We have never had any problems with the authorities
because we position ourselves in the cultural world, away from
proselytism," said Perennes, a 64-year-old French national who heads a
team of scholars and researchers at the institute established by the Dominican
The weekend celebrations of IDEO's 60th anniversary were
attended by the head of Egypt's Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, and several
senior officials of Al-Azhar - a rare scene in today's Egypt where sectarian
clashes and Christian fears of marginalisation make the headlines more
frequently than shows of ecumenism.
The Coptic pope, whose community represents around six to
10% of Egypt's population, said he was "proud that there is an institute
of this calibre in our country to link Islamic and Christian cultures".
Dialogue of shared values
Mahmoud Azab, an advisor to Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed
al-Tayyeb, praised IDEO for being "a citadel of learning" aimed at
fostering "a dialogue of shared values".
With a library that holds nearly 160 000 volumes, including
20 000 classical texts of Arab and Muslim heritage, IDEO is one of the most
important centres of religious studies in the Middle East.
It is open to university researchers both from Egypt and
abroad, and many Al-Azhar students take advantage of its facilities.
"According to the Dominican tradition of silence and
study, we are trying to create an island of peace, reading and
meditation," said Perennes.
Among those using the library, 98% of whom are Muslim,
"we get Salafists [ultra-conservative Muslims], women who are veiled, [and
some] who aren't. What matters is respect for the academic rules. As for the
rest, everyone is free to do as they please", he said.
Mats are available for those who wish to pray while using
"The sources that can be consulted here are very rare
and often not found elsewhere," said student Alaa Badawi.
Khadiga el-Gaafar, a veiled student immersed in a copy of
the Encyclopedia Islamica, said the institute "can compete with American
The tranquility of the space and its heaving bookshelves are
not IDEO's only strengths, the centre has also developed a software programme -
alKindi - for researching catalogues on Arab culture.
The European Union is financing a study of 200 classical
authors of Arabic-Muslim heritage.
IDEO hopes that in the face of increasingly radical
discourse, works to contextualise these authors will allow a more
"nuanced, less fundamentalist, more pertinent" view of their