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Between 7 and 11 May 2022, Dr Romina Istratii participated in a Gingko Fellowship Retreat in Egypt. The Gingko Fellowship is organised by Gingko, a charitable organisation that aims to bridge the divide between West Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions and the West.
The Gingko Fellowship Programme is a series of annual retreats that bring together scholars of divinity from Al-Azhar University in Cairo and their peers from universities in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America to develop friendships, share about each other’s faiths and address together challenging questions about the world.
Dr Istratii is the first fellow to graduate from the programme, having joined the fellowship in 2018 and graduated in 2019 when she formally received her PhD in Religious Studies from SOAS University of London. Dr Istratii was invited to participate in the retreat in Egypt as one of the Founding Fellows, along with 22 other fellows.
During the retreat programme in Egypt the fellows stayed at the All Saints Garden Conference Centre in Zamalek, Cairo. Activities included an evening reception at the British Embassy hosted by Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt H.E. Gareth Bayley, a visit to the Al-Azhar University, where the fellows listened to a keynote speech by the Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, a Scriptural Reasoning session delivered at the British Council and visits to the Al-Azhar Mosque, the Coptic Museum, and Coptic Churches and the City of the Dead in Old Cairo.
At the conclusion of the retreat, Dr Istratii shared the thoughts below:
After five days in Cairo engaging in inter-faith encounters in a space where religious difference was openly recognised, respected and discussed, I leave with a full heart. On our last day, we visited the Coptic Museum and Necropolis (‘City of the Dead’ in Greek) encompassing numerous historical Coptic Churches and mosques. We walked the grounds that the Theotokos with baby Jesus walked on. A deeply spiritual experience combined with genuinely open intellectual and faith-informed conversations between Egyptian Muslims and western and eastern Christians. Four years have passed since we embarked on the Gingko Fellowship journey, that brings Al-Azhar and UK divinity scholars together to learn from each other. I hope that we continue in the same spirit: embracing one’s religious worldview while genuinely listening to learn more about the religious ‘other.’ In my experience, true tolerance begins not when we become similar, but when we mutually accept our differences and care to understand them.