Theology and Global Development

Sent On: 
Thu, 2022-06-16
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Students and professors at Ain Shams University


Is theology relevant in our daily lives? In the secularized West many believe theology has little to no relevance in development. In the highly religious society of Egypt these views are diametrically different.


It was interesting to organize a visit for a group of 15 students in Catholic Theology and Global Development to Egypt and meeting with different church leaders, a development project for the poor in Ezbet el-Nahl [ʿIzbit an-Naḥl] and people engaged in the dialogue between Muslims and Christians. It is not only a matter of these two religions. The views within both religions are widely different. Coptic Orthodox Bishop Armia [Armiyā] spoke with the students about good relations with ‘moderate Muslims’ and when we asked about moderation in his view is he said, ‘acceptance of the other.’ The bishop referred to Muslims who accept that Christians adhere to a different worldview and thus, he did not say this, but this is the implication, disagree with the wish of Islamists to Islamize public life in society.


It is, of course, a prerequisite for development that people of different religious convictions, accept each other and not focus on their specific religious agenda such as happened during the one year that president Mursi [Muḥammad Mursī] was ruling Egypt. The struggle in Egypt has been and still is over the influence of religion in the public domain.


The website of Aachen University describes the purpose of this course fashioning our lives in such a way “that every single person is guaranteed to be treated with dignity” and “that our natural resources are safeguarded and protected.” The program “combines the multi-layered approach of theological disciplines with other scientific approaches found in the human and social sciences – in particular those in the fields of sociology, political science and cultural geography.”


What makes this program so unique is the interdisciplinary and practically oriented approach, while always bearing in mind religious as well as cultural processes. It is important to understand different cultures and religions, and how to deal with these differences in a way that leads to harmony and understanding. The course also deals with ethical challenges or the consequences arising from diverse images of humanity.


The students were accompanied by three professors, Dr. Katja Voges, Prof. Dr. Harald Suermann and Prof. Dr. Simone Paganini who all three showed a great dedication to support their students in line with the above-mentioned principles.


The students explained on several occasions why they have chosen this study. Some come from religious Catholic families and others not. One student stated she came from an atheist family but was searching for meaning in life. They all want to be active in development, either with organizations in Germany or abroad. This is in line with what this program is offering.


Very interesting was a seminar at Ain Shams University about the arrival of Islam in Egypt. The basis for this discussion was a paper of Prof. Dr. Harald Suermann for Arab-West Report. The title of this paper was “Copts During the First Century of Islam and that History’s Relevance Today.” This discussion is relevant for us today because our view on history determines how we look at the other. Many people have a distorted view of history, one that is colored by their own beliefs but not by the facts what happened in history. Egypt was a predominantly Christian country before the arrival of Islam and after Islam arrived in Egypt the demographic balance shifted in favor of Islam. Many Coptic Christians, in particular Coptic activists in the West, claim they were persecuted through the centuries. History is not black-and-white. There have been moments of great hardship but also moments of excellent cooperation. See for a short history of this widely diverse history in my chapter titled “Egypt – The Church under Pressure” for the book “Freedom of Belief and Christian Mission,” Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series, Vol. 28, Regnum Books International, Oxford, 2015. This was not my title, but one given to me by the editors. I would have rather had a title that would have reflected the changes throughout the centuries. The arrival of Islam to Egypt is, of course, a major change in the history of Christians in Egypt. Arguments are made about whether Egypt was ‘conquered’ by Muslims or whether the country was ‘opened’ to Islam.  When one digs into history one sees that simplified claims about history do great injustice to the complexity of what happened and affect the way we look to the other. Prof. Dr. Tarek Mansour [Ṭāriq Manṣūr] and Dr. Samer Qandil [Sāmir Qandīl] presented outstanding papers that we hope later can be published in Dialogue Across Bridges. It is extremely important that such exchanges take place.


For the students this visit was an eyeopener. Visiting a country and meeting with people is far more affective then only studying books. Of course, students need to read but the importance of such a study visit and meeting with a wide range of people should not be underestimated.


“An internship offers not only important practical experience, but also opportunities to network with potential future employers. In this way, theoretical foundations are optimally combined with professional experience. Future career opportunities can open up,” the university website mentions, listing where this education could be used. It was obvious that one week in Egypt was totally insufficient but students at least obtained the opportunity to get an impression of the various items that play a role in intercultural dialogue and development. Many institutions we met explained students the opportunities to return to Egypt as an intern and in this way increase their practical experience which will help them in finding their way to a potential job or vocation in life.



June 16, 2022

Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Dialogue Across Borders