Our 25th Jubilee: Dialogue through Database Building

Sent On: 
Wed, 2022-10-05
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In 1994, I left the Netherlands and moved to Egypt with my Egyptian wife Sawsan and our three small children. Upon arrival in Egypt, I was to become the correspondent for different Dutch media organizations as well as an American outlet, News Network International.


On June 13, 1997, we made the first summary translations of Arabic media which became the actual start of our database. On October 1, we started selling weekly newsletters with summary translations and called this the Religious News Service from the Arab World. This was the first service that provided Western readers with an overview of reporting in Arabic media about Christians in Egypt and the Arab World.


This served an important need since media in the West often focused on claims of Christian persecution that in turn was feeding Christian emigration to the West. The summary translations from Arabic media showed a very different image, whereby our intention was always to focus on a wide diversity of media, both Muslim and Christian. Our selection was based on subject matter and not on the views that were presented. We explicitly stressed the need to remain non-partisan.


A major stimulus had come from the Dutch organization Open Doors when they requested us in 1995 to investigate stories of kidnapped Christian girls who were allegedly forced to convert to Islam. My wife played a major role in the translations and analysis of the stories that were told. We spent around one year investigating these stories. I wanted to meet with families and involved priests on location and traveled to locations all over Egypt. I discovered a different reality that was described well by a Coptic Orthodox village priest in a village near the pyramid of Maidum: fishing in troubled waters with the carrot and the stick. In his metaphor, the fishing refers to Muslim missionary activities, the troubled waters are Coptic families of mostly lower socio-economic classes facing various serious social problems, the carrot refers to Muslim offers to help concerned Coptic families with material needs but combined with teaching Islam and the stick is the punishment for apostasy, leaving Islam after first having converted from Christianity to Islam. These were problematic stories, but it wasn’t the blunt kidnapping of girls off the streets of Egypt and forcing them to convert as several activists had claimed. One of the stories that had made a deep impact on us was that of a Christian girl who converted to Islam and was later killed by her brother. Coptic Orthodox Bishop Athanasius of Bani Suwayf (1923–2000) provided much information and introduced me to the priest of this family. The story was so totally different from how this had been reported abroad. I was surprised to find that my detailed reporting didn’t seem to make much of an impact on the broader Western and Christian discourse about such events. Open Doors never informed us what they had done with this report while media stories about kidnapping and forced conversions continued.


This experience underlined the need to provide Western readers with a broader perspective of the position of Christians in Egypt. Our subscribers included also Arabic speakers such as Volkhart Windfuhr (1937-1920), chairman of the Cairo Foreign Press Association and the Comboni Fathers because the weekly overviews gave them good overviews of Arabic media reporting on the role of religion in society.


The summary translations made it over time also possible to see patterns. We had no website, only weekly mailings with numbered articles.


In May 1998 I wrote my first personal commentaries in response to discussions about the American Freedom from Religious Persecution Act. Coptic activists in the USA saw the discussions about the act as an opportunity to pressure the US government to pressure the government of Egypt for change. In my 1984 master’s thesis about the Armenian genocide, I had described how foreign pressures on the Ottoman Empire prior to the First World War to support an Armenian nationalist agenda had backfired and played a role in preparing the climate that preceded the genocide. I was vehemently opposed to the pressures of foreign governments on Egypt and believed that changes had to come from within Egypt.


I had also seen in my studies the origins and consequences of Christian emigration from the Arab world. This led to depleted Christian communities in the region where Christianity was born. My wife and I were convinced that Christians in the Muslim World needed dialogue with Islam for peace building as a prerequisite to set up development projects to help the poor and most vulnerable in society which is only possible in stable regions.


In August 1998 the al-Kosheh [al-Kushḥ] incident took place following the death of two Christian villagers. I travelled to Bilyana [Balyānā] to meet with Coptic Orthodox Bishop Wissa and villagers in al-Kushḥ. The two young men “were part of a group of young, unemployed men who were drinking alcohol made from dates, and using drugs and they were gambling,” Coptic Orthodox Bishop Wissa said. Of course, this in no way means that they somehow deserved what happened to them, but the story I found was very different from the reporting of Coptic activists in the USA who had claimed they had been murdered by Muslims. I had agreed to report on this for Compass Direct, but they refused to publish my work. I was deeply disappointed that I was unable to report what I had seen and heard on the location where it happened. This was the end of my cooperation with Compass Direct and I wrote my first investigative report for our database. Many more followed, as I worked to be as close to local sources as possible.  Rev. David Petrescue (1953-2006) of the Maadi Community Church had presented my report about al-Kushḥ to US politician Charles Colson (1931-2012) who showed, according to the pastor, zero interest in the facts in Egypt but only how reporting could be used to foster a so-called higher agenda, in this case reducing US military and economic support to Egypt. We were so disheartened by this.


Kathy Spencer developed and managed the subscription system but with an annual income of around 10,000 US$ this wasn’t covering the costs of translations and administration. At the same time our income from journalism reduced, I collapsed in 2000 but shortly after this obtained a position as affiliate assistant professor of mass communication at the American University in Cairo.


Discussions with mass communication professors Dr. Ralph Berenger and late Dr. Mike Fowler, who was also an American human rights lawyer, helped to improve reporting. Dutch organization Kerk in Actie found our style of reporting of great importance to show a Dutch audience an alternative view of Christian life in Egypt and provided support in 2001 but they didn’t want to continue with support to an individual correspondent. In preparation for the NGO registration, we changed the name from Religious News Service from the Arab World to Arab-West Report. This showed a wider scope for dialogue then that between religious communities.


Fr. Dr. Christiaan van Nispen, S.J. (1938-2016), Dr. Abdel Mo’ti Bayoumi [ʿAbd al-Muʿṭī Bayyūmī] (1940-2012) of al-Azhar, late Catholic Bishop Dr. Yohanna Qulta [Yūḥannā Qulta], Anglican Bishop Dr. Mouneer Hanna Anis [Munīr Ḥannā Anīs], Coptic Orthodox Bishops Marcos and Thomas, Rev. Dr. Safwad al-Bayadi [Ṣafwat al-Bayāḍī], head of the Protestant Church Council of Egypt, Mr. Cherif Esmat Abdelmeguid [Sharīf ʿIṣmat ʿAbd al-Majīd], Dr. Amr Assad [ʿAmrū Asʿad] and others were co-founders of our Egyptian NGO, the Center for Arab-West Understanding to foster dialogue and understanding between people of different convictions. The founders were deliberately very diverse, representatives of all churches and leading Muslims, religious and secular. It wasn’t easy. Despite this broad support we received no approval from Egyptian security. It took years to address this in the Council of State that ultimately approved our NGO in 2007.


The German Catholic organization Missio gave our initiative in 2004 a strong push with the invitation to participate in a dialogue campaign titled “Dare to Meet the Other.” I spent one month with three meetings or lectures per day. The first two weeks with Dr. ʿAmrū Asʿad and the last two weeks with Prof. Dr. Hassan Wagieh [Ḥassan Muḥammad Wajīh] of al-Azhar University. Danish friends organized a lecture for me at Copenhagen University. This was immediately after the infamous Danish cartoons had been published. I didn’t know the Egyptian Ambassador to Denmark, H.E. Mona Omar [Munā ʿUmar] was in the audience. She liked my lecture and invited me to the Embassy where I informed her about our difficulties to obtain recognition for our NGO. She wrote a public letter of recommendation and asked the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to recommend our work to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.


The delays made Dr. ʿAbd al-Muʿṭī Bayyūmī advise us to establish a company, Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation (CIDT), which happened in 2005 without complications. Friends in the Netherlands established the Arab-West Foundation, also in 2005. Since it turned out to be extremely complicated to register the copyright for our work in Egypt we did so through the Arab-West Foundation. CAWU became the main body for student internships, mostly engaged in producing content for our database. Students could choose the subjects of their interest. This created a diversity in the material that was in line with the new name Arab-West Report.


Up until today, these three organizations work together to support the work in database building for dialogue.  This legal structure enabled Missio and Misereor to join Kerk in Actie in support for our work.


Our highlights were the visits of former Dutch Prime Minister Andreas van Agt to Egypt in 2006 in support of our work. We met with Egyptian dignitaries such as Minister of Awqaf Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq [Ḥamdī Zaqzūq], head of the Arab League Amr Musa [ʿAmrū Mūsa], Presidential advisor Dr. Usama al-Baz [Usāma al-Bāz], Shaykh al-Azhar Dr. Sayed Tantawi [Sayyid Ṭanṭāwī] and many others and advocated the need for dialogue.


With former Dutch Prime Minister Andreas van Agt (centre) visiting Egyptian officials. To the right Minister of Awqaf Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq in 2006


Prof. van Agt  launched our website at an event we organized at El Sawy Culture Wheel [Sāqiyya  al-Ṣāwī], an important cultural centre in Cairo.


In 2008 Dutch MP Geert Wilders launched his infamous film Fitna. Kerk in Actie asked us to organize the visit of a Dutch Muslim and Christian delegation to Egypt, including representatives of the Dutch Council of Churches, the Dutch Catholic Church and the PKN-Church, the largest Protestant Church in the Netherlands, prior to the release of this film. They gave us only a few days to prepare a program since they wanted to be ready to respond to Wilder’s film upon the moment they would return to the Netherlands. The chairman of the delegation was Rev. Dr. Bas Plaisier, then scribe of the Protestant Churches of the Netherlands and the face of the church to the outside world. Rev. Plaisier received in Egypt a phone call of then Dutch Prime Minister Jan Pieter Balkenende who expressed his appreciation for the visit of this delegation to Egypt.


 First major CAWU activity reception of Dutch Muslim-Christian delegation to Egypt in 2008


Egyptian bishops of all churches, al-Azhar, Cairo University and Egyptian media were all highly pleased with the delegation that clearly expressed their wish for dialogue as opposed to the polarization of Wilders. We presented a petition to the Dutch Parliament. Dr. Ḥassan Wajīh wrote an excellent rebuttal of Wilders’ claims for publication in our database. This visit resulted in a permanent dialogue committee between churches and Muslim organizations in The Netherlands.


In 2008 the Anna Lindh Foundation decided to fund our electronic network for Arab-West Understanding. The aim was that our database would also include data from organizations in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. We developed a classification system based on the Dewey classification system. Weekly issues were printed and manually classified. The subject index was developed by my wife Sawsan. German IT engineer Dieter Mueller-Ehrhart developed our database. Nick Truscott was an excellent coordinator of activities. HRH Prince el-Hassan bin-Talal [al-Ḥassan bin Ṭalāl] of Jordan launched this network in 2008 in Jordan, stressed the need to build a system for collective intelligence and called our work “a vector of change.” Jordanian IT experts at the Princes Sumaya University for Technology recommended us to switch to the Drupal platform which was implemented and supported by Dieter until 2013.  


Meeting Cornelis Hulsman with HRH Prince el-Hassan bin-Talal in 2008


Between 2005 and 2009 we had a large team with multiple translators, an IT engineer with secretarial support. I was mostly focused on content production and the supervision of student interns. The number of reports rapidly increased.


Our family decided to return in 2009 to the Netherlands for the education of our children. Sawsan became the director of the office in 2009-2010 and efforts were made to hand over work to a successor. In January 2011, I was in Egypt with a delegation of Catholic priests when the revolution took place that toppled President Hosni Mubarak [Ḥusnī Mubārak]. It didn’t go well with our office in Cairo and in March 2011 I returned to Egypt, this time alone with frequent visits between Egypt and the Netherlands. My presence in Egypt kept interns coming to Egypt and we never faced any problems despite the unrest and demonstrations from 2011-2013. Our darkest day was when our database was deliberately destroyed in June 2013. This was related to the turmoil in Egypt following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Mursi [Muḥammad Mursī]. It took years to recover the database. These were also years during which our interns conducted tens of interviews with Islamists and their opponents which resulted in an agreement with Prof. Dr. Wolfram Reiss of Vienna University to publish the work of our staff and students in three volumes of Anwendungsorientierte Religionswissenschaft (Applied Religious Science*).


The destruction of our data in 2013 made Prof. Dr. Willem Kuiper, Prof. Dr. Heleen Murre van de Berg, today Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies at the Radboud University and Prof. Dr. Nelly van Doorn-Harder, professor at Wake Forest University (North Carolina, USA) and the Vrije Universiteit (Amsterdam, Netherlands) with a focus on Coptic Christians from Egypt and Islam in Southeast Asia, recommend our work to DANS, the Dutch national centre of expertise and repository for research data and one of the leading repositories in Europe. Our own reports were uploaded in 2016-2017 covering the period 1994-2016 for use by researchers.


CIDT and CAWU cooperate with different entities in Egypt on various dialogue projects. The lecture for Archbishop George Carey about combatting religious extremism in July 2019 was organized in cooperation with the Anglican Diocese of Egypt and is an example of one such cooperation.


CAWU students with Archbishop Dr. George Carey and Archbishop Dr. Mouneer after the July 2019 lecture


We also participated in numerous conferences such as a European-Arab dialogue conference in Trieste in 2019. Scholars assembled here from Europe and the Arab World highlighted the importance of our database for dialogue that should, ideally be expanded to include more Arab countries.


I remained traveling between Egypt and the Netherlands until August 2021. We are glad to have found in Dr. Matthew Anderson a successor to continue the work we have started. Matthew completed his doctorate at Georgetown University in 2018 and has been teaching there in various capacities for the last four years. After consultation, we decided this year to change the name of our publication to Dialogue Across Borders: Emerging Perspectives on Intercultural and Interreligious Relations which shows yet again a broadening of our scope. We are also very pleased that Prof. Hoda Awad [Hudā ʿAwaḍ], a professor of political science at Misr International University and member of the Egyptian National Council of Human Rights, succeeded in June 2022 Ir. Sawsan Gabra Ayoub Khalil [Sawsan Jabrā Ayyūb Khalīl] as the chairwoman of the Center for Arab-West Understanding.


We now have a database of 56,000 articles and reports. We have served over 400 student interns, organized numerous dialogue meetings and activities. Our work shows the need to listen to different sources. It shows the need to be close to the locations where stories actually happened. It acknowledges complexity and that we need to be aware of ideological distortions. We may believe the world operates in a particular way, but reality shows us the complex realities that surround us. We need to be cautious in making assumptions and drawing conclusions, while appreciating all that we may not fully know or understand. Still, we must try to understand these events and intercultural dynamics to be best of our ability. We have now signed an agreement with Brill Publishers, a global publishing leader in interreligious, intercultural, and Middle Eastern studies, who will present our database for subscription to university libraries worldwide. As our database work continues to advance, I believe it is in excellent hands with Dr. Matthew Anderson.



October 5, 2022


Cornelis Hulsman,

Founding Editor-in-Chief Religious News Service from the Arab World, Arab-West Report, Dialogue Across Borders, 1997-2022


*Cornelis Hulsman (ed.), The Sharia as the Main Source of Legislation? The Egyptian Debate on Article II of the Egyptian Constitution, Anwendungsorientierte Religionswissenschaft, volume 3, Tectum Verlag, 2012

Cornelis Hulsman (ed.), From Ruling to Opposition, Islamist Movements and Non-Islamist Groups in Egypt 2011-2013, Anwendungsorientierte Religionswissenschaft, volume 9, Tectum Verlag, 2017

Cornelis Hulsman (ed.) and Diana Serôdio, The 2014 Egyptian Constitution; Perspectives from EgyptAnwendungsorientierte Religionswissenschaft, volume 10, Tectum Verlag, 2017