Cairo emergency: interview with father vincenzo ianniello

Giacomo Pizzi21 February 2011

EGITTO/ La rivolta vista dal convento dove i musulmani studiano san FrancescoEvidence of dialogue in a Cairo besieged by the army and demonstrators. A library run by Franciscan friars where professors from the Islamic religious universities send their students to research their theses on such saints as Saint Frances and Saint Bonaventure. Here to tell about the things that are happening at the Mouski Convent, in the large Latin parish of the Egyptian capital, is Father Vincenzo Ianniello, Franciscan of the Custody of the Holy Land and Director of the Center for Christian Oriental Studies in Cairo. A half-hour walk from Tahir Square, if one doesn’t mind the gunshots directed against looters that reverberate in the night, the Mouski convent has not been directly affected by the clashes and demonstrations. But it is nonetheless a privileged vantage point for understanding, with the typical calm of the Franciscan friars, what sorts of things will be taking place in tomorrow’s Egypt.

Father Ianniello, why did some Christians go down to the square to protest, while others preferred not to?

Some Christians, including priests and nuns, took part in the protests, but they did so in a very discreet manner. It’s true that the Muslim Brotherhood issued a declaration in which they said that “Christians and Muslims are all equal”. But this is a formula that is repeated whenever that they want to obtain something. They say “our God is the same as yours”, “we all have the same God”, and other things of this nature. But when there is no further need of Christian support, the differences become evident and in practical terms the minority doesn’t count for anything. When it serves their purposes we are all equal, and later this ceases to be the case. It’s for this reason that Christians have a certain degree of fear. Perhaps the same degree of fear isn’t present in all, but there is a great deal of caution, because it is difficult to decipher what is going to happen later, and if one makes a false step one will pay the price.

What sort of Egypt do you foresee?

We shouldn’t deceive ourselves, it’s too early to give answers. But it’s true that each time I pass in front of the university I see young people, both Muslims and Christians (one can tell them apart by their manner of dress), who are walking and talking together. This shows that in the younger generations there is a certain openness to dialogue. This occurs above all in the more educated environs, but it’s not the same everywhere: if one comes from the Islamic university will one think in exactly the same manner? The young people who come to our library, where we have 80,000 volumes on Western Christianity are in any case both Muslims and Christians. And we often see girls completely veiled who are together with Christians without any problem. It’s the environment that is the determining factor, and in Egypt not all environments are equal. When Coptic Christmas was celebrated on 7 January, we went to greet the Orthodox to give them our best wishes. They told us: “Be calm, because we have always had good relations with our Muslim neighbors and so we are not worried about the risk of attacks.

And in these days of protests, for Christians has the climate become more or less free?

In these days the climate is better. In the times of rebellion, no one attacked churches, although the police had literally disappeared. They could have done whatever they wanted to to our monastery, but absolutely nothing happened. To be sure, at the New Year there was the terrible attack in Alexandria. And the government’s version is that the terrorists came from outside the country. But from the very first people were saying: “This attack was organized in Egypt”. Why they were saying this, I don’t know. Now, however, from an investigation it turns out that the attack may have been organized by the former Interior Minister. Not to speak of the fact that in recent days Christians have been praying in Tahrir Square, while Muslims stood there watching them. If this had occurred under Mubarak, it would have been the end of the world.

What is the importance of the Franciscan presence in Cairo?

In Egypt, apart from the fathers of the Holy Land to which I belong, there are also Franciscans of the Egyptian Province, who are active in the field of education. Muslim and Christian students come to our schools, without distinction, and in this manner many positive relations are established that remain over time. We are not here to preach, but rather as Saint Frances taught us, to be a peaceful presence in the midst of the people.

But why do Muslim students come to the friars’ library?

Some professors, including those from Islamic universities, propose to their students to do a thesis on the Christian saints, especially Saint Frances and Saint Bonaventure. This has all come about because in our convent we have a Syrian father to whom many Islamic teachers turn for translations from Latin into Arabic. From their encounters with him, in many cases the desire has been born to know about our experience. One professor in particular asked himself: “But why do we always ask ourselves what we think about the Christian West, rather than what they think about us?” It’s a bit like Moses who, after having seen the burning bush, felt the desire to discover what it was. These relations between ourselves and the Muslims come from an experience which probably can’t be explained, but out of which has arisen the desire for better relations between Muslims and Christians.

From a social point of view, how is the situation in Egypt?

The idea that the people who count here are those who give orders to others, is a deep-rooted mentality and it seems to me that the regime has done nothing to correct this. Probably because the regime has never really been interested in the people. The only people in which it was interested were those who had succeeded in accumulating capital. When I returned to Egypt four years ago, after having lived here for a long time in the 1990s, the first thing that I heard was: “Egypt is sitting on a powder keg, sooner or later it will explode”. And this is what has now happened.

Why do you say that the government has never been interested in the people?

Twenty years ago the economic situation was difficult, but people essentially had enough to eat. Today in contrast it is increasingly common to meet people who have nothing with which to feed themselves. For example, many times people have told me that they stay up until 3 a.m. watching television, in order to get up as late as possible and skip a meal, thereby saving some small change. And young people frequently come to our convent to ask if they can eat a roll of bread saying: “I have forgotten when the last time I saw one was”. In most of the neighborhoods of Cairo people are living in this manner.

But this poverty also comes from a certain mentality?

Yes, in Egypt as soon as a person has somebody underneath him, he right away feels himself master of that person’s life. There are numerous stories that confirm this. A worker who becomes a small businessman, for example, stops working immediately and limits himself to watching his employees who are slaving away. Not to speak of the corruption in public life. At Sharm el-Sheikh there is a military base with ships of the Italian and American navies. At the US base they needed some cranes and had them shipped to the port of Alexandria in Egypt: according to international agreements, these cranes were not subject to import duties. The former director of the port nonetheless dug in his heels and insisted on the payment of a sum, and in the end the US Navy had to give in. And after the Cairo metro had been built, the French company had some materials left over that it planned to leave in the country. But the authorities demanded the payment of a fee for this, and as a result the materials all wound up at the bottom of the Mediterranean.