An Egyptian ultraconservative Islamist group was forced to cancel a planned “understanding of Islam” conference Friday in the ancient Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel, a major destination of foreign tourists, following wide criticism.
The conference “What is Islam?” had been called by Endowments Minister Talaat Afify, also vice president of the Salafists Religious Commission for Rights and Reform. It was meant to coincide with a rare solar phenomenon when the sun becomes perpendicular onto the face of King Ramses II and illuminates the inner sanctuary of Abu Simbel Temple.
The phenomenon happens only twice every year and attracts thousands of tourists every year. Ultraconservative Salafists sought to take advantage of the large congregation of non-Muslim visitors to “introduce” Islam to them.
Mohamed Saad, an organizer of the campaign "What is Islam?" told Al Arabiya English that the conference was cancelled following a "campaign against the endowment minister."
The planned event had been criticized by Egyptian officials at the ministries of tourism and antiquities who rejected involving religious affairs in the tourism industry.
“Involving Islamic issues in a Paranoiac celebration is bound to have a negative impact on the tourism industry in Egypt,” Ahmed Saleh, head of the Abu Simbel and Nubia Antiquities Division told the London-based Asharq al-Awasat newspaper. “The temple is a cultural site and is not for religious events,” he added.
Saleh explained that the conference was cancelled following talks with the governor of Aswan, to which the site is administratively affiliated, and the ministry of tourism.
“It is true that the conference is organized for good intentions, which is introducing foreigners to Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance, but the temple is not the right place for that because it will be counterproductive for the reputation of tourism in Egypt.”
Gamal Abdel Sattar, advisor to the minister of Islamic endowments for preaching and preachers’ affairs, had described the conference as the first of its kind in the ministry’s history.
“The conference is also the first activity to be organized by the English section of the Preaching Department at the ministry and in coordination with the ministries of tourism and antiquities,” he said according to Asharq al-Awsat, implying a prior agreement between the three ministries.
Abdel Sattar added that ministry will hold an exhibition to introduce the values of Islam and in which foreign tourists will be addressed in their own languages.
“The conference and the activities it includes will answer all foreigners’ questions about Islam.”
The Salafi party al-Asala, meanwhile, had announced staging a demonstration in support of the Prophet Mohammed in front of the Abu Simbel Temple on the day of the planned conference.