In a surprise move, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, known as the pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, announced Jan. 20 it was suspending dialogue with the Vatican indefinitely.

The move was in protest against Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks calling for the protection of Christians in Egypt. Al-Azhar claimed the Pope was interfering in Egpytian affairs. But observers believe politics and a misinterpretation of the Pope’s words are behind the move. (Some media made it falsely appear as though the Pope was calling on all Western governments to intervene to protect Christians in Egypt.)

The respected Egyptian Jesuit scholar of Islam, Father Samir Khalil Samir, offered his comments on the situation in a Jan. 26 interview.

What are the reasons for this suspension of dialogue? Is it due to officials at Al-Azhar misinterpreting the Pope’s words, as some have suggested?

Certainly there was a wrong interpretation of what the Pope said, and this is very clear because they accused the Pope of wanting to start a new crusade. It’s an extreme position.

But the government and Al-Azhar also spoke of interference in Egyptian affairs. This is a very sensitive point in Egypt because the government is weak and very controversial. The government wanted to give the impression they were on top of the situation. But according to Al Jazeera’s interpretion, the Pope appeared to say that Egypt isn’t able to protect Christians, and so the West must come to their aid in the country. That would imply a kind of invasion. But I am sure Al-Azhar doesn’t seriously believe that to be true. It’s really too much of an exaggeration. But the government is in a difficult situation for internal political reasons because they manipulated the election: Everyone knows that the president wants his son to succeed him, and he is manipulating the system, drawing up rules excluding some groups.

Do you think President Hosni Mubarak and his government, therefore, put pressure on Al-Azhar to sever relations?

Certainly. Al-Azhar has been known for decades for being totally submitted to the government. They are simply employees of the government and on the government payroll. It is propaganda. The Greek Catholic patriarch and the Coptic Catholic patriarch went separately to present the text of the Pope, saying there was a misinterpretation. The rector then promised to make a declaration, and they [Church leaders] were expecting it to be positive, but the opposite happened. He was probably asked by an official in the government, perhaps in the ministry of foreign affairs, to suspend dialogue for religious reasons.

They were also sensitive to criticism from Muslim extremists who said they [the government] are doing more for the Copts than they are for us Muslims by offering them protection on the night of the Epiphany, so it’s a confused situation. Also, Al-Azhar didn’t even say anything to the nuncio, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald.

The imam’s statement seemed strange when he criticized the Pope for not speaking out in defense of Muslims killed in Iraq, when Benedict XVI has done so on numerous occasions.

Yes, and he even mentioned the speech in Regensburg! Also, the day before, there was a meeting of Muslim countries in Sharm el Sheikh and Egypt, and Al-Azhar showed the same attitude — wanting to appear strong.

There is also another dispute. The Vatican and Al-Azhar have a common agreement to meet twice a year — it’s an initiative that precedes the Common Word [a dialogue established by Muslim scholars with the Vatican after Regensburg].

Al-Azhar said that, for the next meeting in February, they didn’t want one member on the Catholic committee and asked Cardinal [Jean-Louis] Tauran to remove this person from the Catholic delegation. Cardinal Tauran said that couldn’t be done at the last minute, according to the common agreement, that each party is free to make up its own representation, and if one disagrees with who is represented, they must send a letter, which will be studied and decided upon. It cannot be requested a few weeks before the meeting, orally or through the press, to change that. They said if it won’t be changed, then we will not come, and Cardinal Tauran said, “Sorry, but that is not part of the agreement.”

So you think this is part of the dispute?

Yes, it’s part of the whole thing. This rector of Al-Azhar is new, and so probably he’s not used to the procedure.

Was he part of the Common Word initiative]?

No, but I’ve heard he’s a moderate person. It’s a question of politics and diplomacy — maybe he doesn’t know the usual rules.

He said that the Pope defends Christians but doesn’t say anything when Christians attack Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. But there are two confusions here:

The first is to say Christians are attacking Muslims, because, in the Islamic mentality, the West is Christian. They still think in terms of the war between the Muslims and the West, which is Christian, and so on, as if the Pope could say stop and they would stop.

Secondly, they have no idea that the strongest opposition to the invasion of Iraq came from the Holy See, clearly enunciated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Many times in his homilies and short speeches Benedict XVI has said how sad it is that Muslims have died.

Even when the attacks are by Muslims?

In most cases, it is by Muslims, between Shia and Sunni. They were looking for any pretext.

Yet there is no doubt there’s discrimination against Christians in Egypt?

Discrimination is clear. What the Pope said was an insistence on freedom of religion. But in Egypt nobody makes a distinction between tolerance and freedom of religion. Until now, most Muslims consider the situation in Egypt towards Christians to be perfect. Why? Because they say they are not persecuting them. This is true: They are not persecuting Christians usually, but that does not mean there is freedom of religion. Yes, there is freedom of cult, which means that Christian can celebrate Mass and pray in the church, but nothing outside the church.

It’s often said that Catholic-Jewish relations withstand such controversies because the dialogue has progressed so far. Does this rupture show a failure of dialogue with Muslims?

It’s clear there’s not regular contact [with Al-Azhar], because they are taking their information not directly from the Vatican. [But] to be honest, the international level of Al-Azhar is not so high. With the Common Word initiative, it’s different. You have, there, people with a tradition of diplomacy. Al-Azhar is a very big institution, but they usually don’t read anything other than Arabic, and this makes for a closed-in world. It’s different in Jordan and even in Saudi Arabia. But just yesterday [Jan. 24] 23 religious personalities in Egypt made 22 proposals to change Islam’s approach to democracy and free speech. It’s a revolutionary text and came just after rupture in relations. The Al-Azhar scholars are attempting to modernize the lives of Muslims, to put a halt to and even stop the fundamentalist influences that come from Saudi Arabia].

So, there could be change coming?

Certainly there is a need for change. My feeling is that the Vatican takes this seriously, but not with too much alarm. They say we have to wait. Lastly, the Pope has announced the great meeting [interreligious prayer for peace] in Assisi in October 2011, and this was before the reaction of Al-Azhar. This means that the accusations he’s against dialogue are wrong. He has said he won’t do another Assisi if there’s no clarity, and on this point Al-Azhar agrees.

How do you think this might play out? Will Al-Azhar come back into dialogue?

Certainly they will come back, but we have to find a way to do it smoothly, without anyone being humiliated. And I think it’s possible; they will find a way. They will probably not make the planned February meeting. But Egypt is not a hard country, politically and socially. Usually, they try to resolve problems together.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.