With its shaded courtyard and quiet library, Cairo’s Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies is an oasis of research, aimed at fostering Islamic-Christian ties in a country riven with political and religious tensions.
The internationally-reputed IDEO institute aims to encourage not just study, but dialogue between the religions, in a context where “Islam can be scary and where a country like Egypt is trying hard to find its democratic voice,” director Jean-Jacques Perennes said.
The brick building surrounded by greenery is located symbolically in a neighbourhood close to Al-Azhar — Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning — and the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.
Created at the request of the Vatican in 1953, IDEO celebrated its 60th anniversary this week amid tensions in Egypt.
The celebrations come two years after the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and led to last June’s election of the first Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.
“We have never had any problems with the authorities because we position ourselves in the cultural world, away from proselytism,” said Perennes, a 64-year-old French national who heads a team of scholars and researchers at the institute established by the Dominican Order.
The weekend celebrations of IDEO’s 60th anniversary were attended by the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, and several senior officials of Al-Azhar — a rare scene in today’s Egypt where sectarian clashes and Christian fears of marginalisation make the headlines more frequently than shows of ecumenism.
The Coptic pope, whose community represents around six to 10 percent of Egypt’s population, said he was “proud that there is an institute of this calibre in our country to link Islamic and Christian cultures.”
Mahmoud Azab, an advisor to Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, praised IDEO for being “a citadel of learning” aimed at fostering “a dialogue of shared values”.
With a library that holds nearly 160,000 volumes, including 20,000 classical texts of Arab and Muslim heritage, IDEO is one of the most important centres of religious studies in the Middle East.
It is open to university researchers both from Egypt and abroad, and many Al-Azhar students take advantage of its facilities.
“According to the Dominican tradition of silence and study, we are trying to create an island of peace, reading and meditation,” said Perennes.
Among those using the library, 98 percent of whom are Muslim, “we get Salafists (ultra-conservative Muslims), women who are veiled, (and some) who aren’t. What matters is respect for the academic rules. As for the rest, everyone is free to do as they please,” he said.
Mats are available for those who wish to pray while using IDEO’s library.
“The sources that can be consulted here are very rare and often not found elsewhere,” said student Alaa Badawi.
Khadiga el-Gaafar, a veiled student immersed in a copy of the Encyclopedia Islamica, said the institute “can compete with American libraries.”
The tranquility of the space and its heaving bookshelves are not IDEO’s only strengths, the centre has also developed a software programme — alKindi — for researching catalogues on Arab culture.
The European Union is financing a study of 200 classical authors of Arabic-Muslim heritage.
IDEO hopes that in the face of increasingly radical discourse, works to contextualise these authors will allow a more “nuanced, less fundamentalist, more pertinent” view of their writings.