A Muslim man holding the Qur’an and a Coptic Christian man holding a cross are carried through demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo during demonstrations last month.

ROME – The political changes spreading across North Africa and the Middle East show the people’s desire for democracy and equality, said Christian and Muslim leaders, including several from Egypt where popular demonstrations toppled the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

Speaking on Feb 23 at the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, Catholic bishops and Muslim leaders from around the region admitted they did not know exactly what the future would hold, but the grassroots democracy movements seemed to indicate a growing recognition that when one religious or ethnic group suffers systematic discrimination, true democracy does not exist for anyone in the country.

The Egyptian protests, which saw Muslims and Christians standing side by side calling for democracy and constitutional reforms, demonstrated that “the more democracy and freedom there is, the more the freedom of each individual is respected and guaranteed”, said Mr Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister.

Mr Mohammed Esslimani, a Muslim theologian, was in Cairo during the protests and read from the diary he kept at the end of January and beginning of February. The diary was filled with stories of Christians and Muslims standing together in Tahrir Square and helping one another.

“I was able to live the most beautiful days of my life,” he said.

Mr Muhammad Rifaa al-Tahtawi, who was the spokesman for Cairo’s al-Azhar University until he quit in early February to join the demonstrators, told the conference that many of the Christian-Muslim tensions and violence in Egypt were the fault of Mr Mubarak’s government.

“A despotic regime tried to convince the Christians that they needed its protection and convince the Muslims that Christians were the agents of the West,” he said.

But when the demonstrators, mostly young Egyptians, took to the streets calling for democracy, “they forgot their rifts”, he said.

Cardinal Antonios Naguib, the Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, told reporters that the government change in Egypt was driven by the dreams of the country’s young people expressing “their desire for values like justice, freedom, peace and equality”.

A danger exists that power could fall into the hands of those who want to impose their interpretation of Islam on the whole country, he said, but those who rallied for change will not accept that easily.

In his address to the conference, he said Christians and Muslims, recognising they share belief in one God and the importance of putting the precepts of their faith into practice, need to invest more time and money in projects that promote mutual understanding.

Mr Muhammad al-Sammak, advisor to the chief mufti of Lebanon, told the conference that pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt were very careful to focus on the fact of citizenship and on bringing Muslims and Christians together, he said, “but this does not mean that the [extreme] Islamists won’t try to hijack the process.” - CNS

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