It was 7am on July 9, 2004, when I woke up to my cell phone insistently ringing. I was very exhausted after covering the marathon African summit being held in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, preceded by ministerial meetings, after which I planned to treat myself to a few days touring that beautiful country. I was half asleep when I heard the voice of the Archbishop of the Egyptian Coptic Churches in Africa, a dear man I had come to know years before. After the usual greetings and good wishes, he didn’t waste time getting to the point.
“We want you do take a patriotic mission” the man said. At the moment, I thought the man of God was kidding me since I knew him to have a great sense of humor. Still half asleep, I laughed saying: Your Holiness is calling me at this unholy time to ask me to take a mission? Okay, what do you want me to bring to you from Ethiopia as a souvenir?
“Patriarch Paulos,” he uttered with such seriousness. Immediately, I bolted up saying: What?
“You heard right: His Holiness Abuna Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church” the Egyptian man of God reaffirmed.
There were moments of silence before I went off:” What do you mean? In what sense do you want me to bring Patriarch Paulos to you?” I nervously asked.
“We simply want you to ask for an interview; that’s it. Is this too much?” the man asked.
“Your Holiness knows well that relations between the Ethiopian and the Egyptian churches have been soured for the last 15 years, and that it’s almost nonexistent. Also, I’m sure you are fully aware of how extreme Patriarch Paulos has been with his Holiness Pope Shenouda of the Egyptian church. In light of this, what do you expect to get from such an interview except harsh language only to worsen the already soured relations? And what makes you so sure the Head of the Ethiopian church would be responsive to my request?” I hit back.
“Well, he will be responsive” the man confidently replied.
“Why are you so sure?” I asked.
“Because the man wouldn’t miss the chance to make his points through the most prestigious newspaper in Egypt and the Middle East” Again, the man confidently said.
At the time, I knew about the tremendous overt and covert efforts that had been vainly attempted by both the Egyptian government and the Coptic Church of Egypt to mend their grievances over the past 15 years. So my next question, trying to escape this hopeless mission, was: How and why do you expect me to succeed in what all had failed to accomplish?
“Because, we trust you and your talents as a skillful interviewer” he impatiently retorted.
“It seems that your Grace has forgotten that I am a Muslim. I’m sure it would be both better and more useful to assign a Christian journalist to what seems to be a very sensitive mission?” I desperately said, trying to wiggle myself out of this difficult task.
“On the contrary, we see you as the man for the job” he pushed back.
“Abuna, (our father, in Arabic) when you use the pronoun we, do you refer to a group of people or only yourself? In other words, is it your call or somebody else’s?” I asked trying to depict whether or not his Holiness Pope Shenouda was in consent of that move.
“Is this the right question to ask Yehia? Am I not enough?” he rhetorically asked with a mix of sadness and anger.
“Okay, if I’m to take the mission, and if Patriarch Paulos decided to give an interview, when do you want it to be published?”
“It will not be published. This interview is only meant to soften the Patriarch’s attitude towards the Egyptian Church and to encourage him to accept an invitation to visit us in Egypt,” his Grace said in a calm voice.
I was shocked! For never in my professional life have I ever initiated an interview without the intent to publish. At this point I told the man that such behavior is totally against my professional principles. It took the man of God a while to explain the sensitivity of the issues at stake, and the necessity of bringing the two churches back together with no publicity, a top priority that goes beyond anything else.
“What we seek here is not just the interests of the Church; it is the interests of the whole country of Egypt,” he concluded.
“Your Grace, even if it was only the interests of the Church, this is more than enough for me. After all, the Church is part of Egypt. However, if I’m to take on this mission, I need to take the Egyptian press attaché with me, to be there through the interview” I firmly said.
“No way; we don’t want the embassy to be part of this. This thing has to be unofficial,” the man replied.
“I will not go without having a witness by my side and rest assured, he will not participate in the interview at any point,” I insisted.
“Again, no way,” the man impatiently said.
“In this case, I won’t be able to do it. I need to have the press attaché and another Egyptian Copt who works for the secretariat of the African Union, otherwise I cannot go,” I answered back. There were moments of silence before the man accepted, on condition that none of them would interfere with the interview.
Before we hung up I asked him if there were specific issues he wanted me to raise during the interview. He said they only wanted this interview to soften the Patriarch’s unjustified position against His Holiness Pope Shenouda, and to get the first to accept an invitation by the second, to visit the Church in Egypt.
Two days later I was in the company of Abuna Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church, along with my two Copt escorts to conduct one of the toughest and strangest interviews I have ever made in my professional life; it felt like the impossible interview.