Yale Divinity School students leave Egypt and return to New Haven

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

Ongoing turmoil in Egypt has disrupted plans to inaugurate a pioneering initiative between Yale Divinity School and Al-Azhar University in Cairo, forcing a contingent of students to leave Cairo and return to New Haven for the semester.

The group left Egypt on Feb. 1 on a plane bound for Amsterdam, hoping eventually to fly to Abu Dabi and stay there temporarily until the anti-government uprising in Egypt allowed them to return to Cairo.

However, those plans failed to materialize, and the seven YDS students, along with a Yale sociology Ph.D. candidate, arrived back in New Haven on Feb. 4.

In a message to the YDS community, Dean Harold Attridge said, “Earlier this week I reported that the group of students who were in Cairo for a semester at Al Azhar had been successfully evacuated from Egypt. We had hoped that they would be able to relocate temporarily to Abu Dhabi, in hopes of returning to Cairo if the situation there settled down.

“Unfortunately, that proved not to be possible.  At the same time, the situation in Cairo did not encourage hope that the political situation would be soon resolved.  We therefore decided that the most prudent course of action was for our students to return to the US.”

In his Feb. 4 statement Attridge said Yale administrators were helping to arrange housing for the newly returned students and working out academic plans for the semester, which began on Jan. 10, although course registration did not end until Jan. 21.

The students, under the supervision of Joseph Cumming, director of the Divinity School’s Reconciliation Program aimed at improved Christian-Muslim relations, arrived in Cairo on Jan. 26—ready to begin a semester-long course of study at Al-Azhar in Arabic and Islamic thought, designed to complement their various degree programs at YDS. Al Azhar was founded in the 10th century and is often considered the center of Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning in the world.

While not a formal exchange program, the Yale Divinity School/Al-Azhar relationship has been described by Attridge and other Yale officials as a “collaboration” or “partnership” aimed at sending Yale students to Al-Azhar and vice versa.

Mariam Shehata, the first Al-Azhar student to study at YDS, arrived in the fall.  She is a Fulbright Scholar enrolled in the M.A.R.program who aspires to an academic career in philosophy and religion.

Cumming, who also returned to the U.S., was scheduled to offer the course Christian Theology in Islamic Contexts to the Yale students and possibly give several lectures open to the Al-Azhar student body. The Yale students were also scheduled to enroll in intensive Arabic classes and courses in Islamic theology and in Islamic jurisprudence and ethics.

Yale Divinity students involved in the Al-Azhar project included Norani Abu Bakar ’11 M.A.R., Abigail Ferjak ’11 M.A.R., Emily Goodnow ’13 M.Div., Nora Jacobsen ’12 M.A.R., James Jufer ’12 M.Div., Joshua McCormick ’12 M.A.R., and Jeremiah Wright-Haynes ’13 M.Div.  John Hartley, a Yale Ph.D. student in sociology with close ties to YDS, was also a part of the group.

According to Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Anna Ramirez, there were over 25 applicants for the program.  Decisions, she said, were based on the students’ professional goals and their experience in the Middle East or with inter-faith work.

Posted: 02/07/2011