Egypt's Al-Azhar University Accepts Christian Student Amid Accusations of Discrimination

(Photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)A general view shows Al-Azhar University, which was founded in the 10th century through the endowment of a charitable trust, or awqaf, in Cairo March 19, 2013. The endowments, known as awqaf, receive donations from Muslims to operate specific social projects, such as mosques, schools and welfare schemes. The system goes back more than a thousand years, to soon after the birth of Islam. A fund management venture set up in Dubai this month is taking aim at one of the great backwaters of the Middle Eastern economy: Islamic endowments, which control tens of billions of dollars of assets around the region. Picture taken March 19, 2013.

Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar University has accepted a Christian into its medical residency program, which some believe marks the first time the historic Muslim school has publicly accepted a Christian student.

The Washington, D.C.-based Middle East news outlet Al-Monitor has reported that Abanoub Guirguis Naeem was allowed to officially enroll on May 17 by the dean of Al-Azhar's Faculty of Dentistry in Assiut, Khalid Siddiq, who confirmed his acceptance

"Naeem applied to the college for a residency, and he was accepted along with other students," Siddiq told Al-Monitor.

According to Al-Monitor, Naeem "is the first known case" of a Christian student enrolling at Al-Azhar University, which dates back to the year 970 when it was opened as a madrassa. The Muslim university gained university status in 1961.

Considering that Al-Azhar is selective when it comes the number of applicants it accepts into its residency programs, a doctor who graduated from Al-Azhar and is identified only as T.Y. told Al Monitor that Naeem may have been accepted by the school in order to send a message to critics.

"Not all students who graduate from private universities and want residencies at Al-Azhar are accepted. As the number of applicants outweighs the university hospital's need and capacity, some students are rejected," T.Y. said. "The [decision] is based on the student's grades, where they live and whether there is an agreement between the private university in question and Al-Azhar to take on medical residents. Al-Azhar may have deliberately accepted Naeem to show that its doors are open to all Egyptians in a way that doesn't violate the university's regulations for its Islamic modules."

Naeem's admission comes after Egyptian Parliament member Mohammad Abu Hamed criticized Al-Azhar's enrollment and acceptance policies and has called for all students, whether Muslim or Christian, to be allowed to study there.

Hamed has argued that Al-Azhar's nonreligious colleges should be under the jurisdiction of Egypt's Higher Council for Universities. Hamed proposed a law earlier this year that would affiliate nonreligious Al-Azhar faculties with the regulating government council. Faculties to be included in the council would include the faculties of medicine, engineering, media and communications, according to Al-Monitor. Those faculties would then be forced to allow non-Muslim students to enroll.

In response to Hamed's criticism, Al-Azhar spokesman Abbas Shoman issued a statement in March.

"There is no text that prevents any Egyptian from studying at Al-Azhar, but the conditions for enrollment can only be met by Muslims," the statement reads. "Will Christians memorize the Quran so they can study at Al-Azhar? That won't happen, so the education system at Al-Azhar is not suitable for Christians, as the conditions for enrolling are hard for them and we cannot remove the Islamic education modules or exempt Christians from having to take them."

However, Shoman told Al-Monitor that there is a difference between attending Al-Azhar as a student and participating in the institution's medical residency training programs.

"Organized study includes lectures and theoretical modules. It is hard for Christians to take part in, because besides scientific modules, students take religious modules such as Quranic studies, jurisprudence, Islamic law and doctrines," Shoman explained. "But the residency is practical training in a subject the student has already mastered, and students joining the university for residencies don't study Islamic modules."

Siddiq claimed that Naeem is not the first Christian student to be accepted into residency training at Al-Azhar. However, Siddiq reportedly failed to name previous Christians students who participated in residency training at the school during his interview with Al-Monitor.

"Many Christians have taken part in training courses organized over the past few years," Siddiq said.

However, T.L. told Al-Monitor that Naeem is the first case of a Christian student being publicly acknowledged by the school.

"The university administration did well to promote his case because it is a real message that Al-Azhar embraces all sects in Egyptian society without discrimination, which is the best response to Abu Hamed's suggestion after he accused the university of rejecting Christians, whether intentionally or not," T.L. said. "Naeem did well to get into Al-Azhar instead of being persuaded by negative propaganda saying he wouldn't be allowed in or would be rejected by his colleagues. Christian students may not have applied for internships at Al-Azhar because they believed they would not be accepted or maybe they felt awkward about the situation, especially given that the number of Christian trainers would be very limited."

T.L. said that even though he is not against Hamed's proposal, he thinks that the claims that Al-Azhar discriminates against Christians and other non-Muslims is "not true at all."

"Al-Azhar is facing attacks from many media and political figures," T.L. said.

Naeem's admission to Al-Azhar also comes as Christians in Egypt have faced increased persecution over the last year. Christians have been targeted in multiple church bombings and strings of murders believed to have been carried out by Islamic extremists.

On New Year's Day 2015, Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivered a speech to Muslim clerics at Al-Azhar and called on them to lead a "religious revolution" that puts an end to Islamic extremism.

"You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move," he said. "Because this umma (international Muslim community) is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands."

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