Larycia Hawkins has a fan in Egypt.
Theresa, the nine-months-pregnant wife of a Coptic Orthodox juice stand owner, could not hide her admiration when told how a Christian professor had donned a hijab in solidarity with Muslims facing prejudice in America.
“It is a beautiful thing she has done, going beyond the norm to better approach others,” she said.
“But it would not work here.”
Her comment came on the heels of her husband Hani’s discomfort. He called the symbolic act “extreme.”
In doing so, the humble man mixing mango and strawberry mirrored the reactions of most regional evangelical and Orthodox theologians to the core question of the Wheaton College dispute: not Hawkins's hijab, but her "same God" explanation for it. All commended her intentions, but only one—the Palestinian head of a seminary—praised it as a stand for justice.
One pastor called it “excessive.” A bishop, “unnecessary.” And therein lies the rub. Whether considering donning the hijab in solidarity or debating if Muslims and Christians worship the same God, Arab Christians operate in a vastly different religious context.
Only recently have American Christians had to deal with issues raised by Muslims in their midst. The 9/11 tragedy birthed a political culture that seeks unity through theological terms, said Salim Munayer, head of the lauded Musalaha reconciliation ministry in Jerusalem.
“But among Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, the discussion is not over whether we worship the same God,” he said, “but rather Muslims challenging us that we worship one God at all.”
At a recent interfaith event in Cairo, a black-robed, long-bearded Coptic Orthodox priest stood at the podium and abandoned a standard Christian introduction used for centuries.
“In the name of the One God, whom we all worship,” he intoned, sidelining the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Repeating a phrase popularized by George Anawati—an Egyptian Dominican who strove to heal the Muslim-Christian divide—the priest celebrated all the two faiths held in common.
But the Muslim sheikh did not reciprocate the gesture. “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim,” he began. “In the name of God, most merciful and most compassionate.”
The sheikh’s address was conciliatory, and other Muslim leaders have not shied away from Anawati’s compromise. But some Christian leaders had strong words about the realities that drive local interfaith relations.
“Of course we are not worshipping the same God,” said Luther Awad, head of the Egypt chapter of Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). “But for better relations, many Muslim and Christian leaders like to say otherwise. Deep down, I do not think they mean it.”
Anglican bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis of Egypt applies it differently. Promoting dialogue between Canterbury and al-Azhar, as well as religious partnership in Egypt through the Family House initiative, he admits being moved by the cry of the muezzin.
“The God Muslims worship, we worship as well,” he said, noting the common attributes of oneness, power, and transcendence. He even helped to secure Muslim condemnation of Malaysia’s decision to criminalize Christian use of the word “Allah.”
But Anis is bound by the testimony of scripture.
“For us as Christians, and only by his grace, God has revealed himself in the person of his son Jesus Christ, whom Muslims do not know in this way,” he said.