fr John Khalil, OP: Developing an Arabic theology that is adapted to our reality

Subtitle: 
A Coptic Catholic and Dominican friar at a monastery in Cairo evoke the issues that this minority religious group is challenged with.
Picture: 
fr John Khalil, OP
Body: 

Brother John Khalil, Coptic Catholic, author of a book on political theology and translator of several works in Arabic.

What is the Coptic Catholic Church’s current situation?

Brother John Khalil: It is a small group, compared with its Coptic Orthodox sister church and even more so in relation to Egypt’s entire community of some 200,000 believers. We are faced with several challenges, especially the one of people leaving to join protestant or orthodox churches.

The Protestant Church is very active. It organizes big festive gatherings as well as affordable trips to the Red Sea, which attract lots of people. The Coptic Catholic Church remains the ideal model for some Catholics who find it hard to distance themselves from it.

Because mass lasts for three hours in the Orthodox Coptic Church, Catholics are accused of having “lost their traditions” since theirs don’t last as long.

On top of this was the issue of proselytization. The former Orthodox Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, fully supported it, even with regard to other Christians. He even encouraged other Christians to be “re-baptized”. Today, with Pope Tawadros, things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.

Theologically speaking, where does this church situate itself?

Brother JK: There too, a lot of work is to be done. The Coptic Catholic Church has relied on western theology for too long, but this was developed in a different context and doesn’t necessarily correspond to the reality in Egypt. This doesn’t mean we should reject it, quite the opposite in fact.

I have just translated into Arabic a work by the Dominican theologian Gustavo Gutierrez because the current situation in Egypt has some things in common – in the political and religious context – with those in South America in the 1960s and 1970s. But I think we have to develop an Arabic theology, adapted specifically to our reality.

Why did you choose the Arabic language?

Brother JK: In Egypt, a Christian would not call himself or herself Arabic but Egyptian. But it’s wrong! Pursing this way of thinking means we cut ourselves off from Arabic philosophy, for example, and disconnect ourselves from Egyptian intellectual life.

In Egypt it is important that these works are translated into Arabic, both for a Christian readership here in Egypt, but also for those in Lebanon or in Iraq… I hope that it will help develop a local theological output.

It might encourage Muslims to research the social teachings of their doctrines. It would be interesting for them to understand how Christians think about the relationship between religion and politics, not turning religion into “the opium of the people” but conceiving of it as a force of liberation.

What role can be played by the Dominicans?

Brother JK: I am delighted to be part of a community of fourteen friars of nine different nationalities. Theologically speaking, it’s a great asset. It has allowed us to start off this year with a cycle of theological conferences, which could lead to a Master course. It has already attracted participants from Lebanon, Iraq, and Germany.

In the future, I will be relying a lot on laypeople to help take up the challenge of creating an Arabic theology. Those who come spend a great deal of time studying and reading and, especially, are aware of the necessity of education and training in order to keep their churches alive.

Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner, Cairo, Egypt

 

(16 May 2017)