Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb at the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity  (Vatican Media)

Pope Francis is not letting up on his efforts to promote peace in the world, interreligious dialogue and respect for religious freedom. His trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) marks a milestone on that path, as was his visit to Egypt almost two years ago.

He participated then in the international conference for peace organized by the powerful Sunni university Al Azhar (Cairo). Prior to that the Grand Imam, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, created in 2014 a council of Muslim theologians based in Abu Dhabi; Al-Tayeb is the organizer of the interreligious symposium on human fraternity, held from February 3 to 5, in which the Pope participated.

Commitment to the dignity of all

As he has done before other trips, Francis recorded a video that was released on January 31. A central idea in it is that religious faith unites and does not divide; it brings people closer despite theological differences, it takes away all hostility and aversion.

The number of Catholics in the UAE is significant — about one million out of a population of 9 million — although they are mainly Filipino and Indian emigrants. They enjoy a certain freedom, unlike Christians in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and can attend Mass in one of eight churches. The celebrations are in English, Urdu, Hindi and Tagalog. However, conversion of UAE citizens to Christianity is still prohibited.

‘The same rights for every human being’

Naturally, the Pope is grateful for the signs of openness and tolerance, but he continues to express, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and the insistence of John Paul II, that religious freedom “is not limited to freedom of worship,” as he said in his speech on February 4:

“The correct attitude is not forced uniformity or conciliatory syncretism: what we are called to do, as believers, is to commit ourselves with the equal dignity of all, in the name of the Merciful One who created us and in whose name the reconciliation of conflicts and fraternity in diversity must be sought.”

No human institution, even in the name of God, can force religious faith.

A document condemning religious violence

Al-Tayeb maintains friendly relations with Pope Francis. The Grand Imam of Al Azhar advocates a constructive dialogue, far removed from fundamentalisms and, even more, terrorism. He also rejects the general perception in the West that identifies Islam with forms of extreme violence. At the same time, he asks the Muslim countries to treat Christians as full citizens, as part of the corresponding nation, not as a merely tolerated minority.

This is reflected in the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Common Coexistence , signed together with the Pope on the occasion of the conference. It recognizes basic freedoms, human dignity, the defence of life and the rights of women in society. In particular, it condemns all forms of violence, with special mention of places of worship, and attempts to justify them in the name of God:

“We ask everyone to stop using the religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism and stop using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.”

The two religious leaders hope that the declaration will become a “symbol of the embrace between East and West, between the North and the South.”

Equal rights

The intervention of the Holy Father on February 4, before the civil authorities — including the president of Egypt Al Sisi – religious authorities and the numerous participants in the conference, was longer than usual. He began by recalling that this year marks the eighth centenary of the meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil:

“I have accepted the occasion to come here as a believer thirsting for peace, as a brother who seeks peace with Brothers. Wanting peace, promoting peace, being instruments of peace: we are here for this.”

The Pope’s starting point is the recognition of God as the origin of the human family and the foundation of fraternity:

“Thus, to recognize the same rights for every human being is to glorify the name of God on earth. In the name of God the Creator, therefore, every form of violence must be condemned without hesitation, because we gravely profane God’s name when we use it to justify hatred and violence against a brother or sister. No violence can be justified in the name of religion.”

. . .

“Religious behaviour, therefore, needs continually to be purified from the recurrent temptation to judge others as enemies and adversaries. Each belief system is called to overcome the divide between friends and enemies, in order to take up the perspective of heaven, which embraces persons without privilege or discrimination.”

. . .

“There is no alternative: either we build the future together or there will be no future. Religions, in a special way, cannot give up the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures. The time has come for religions to engage more actively, with courage and audacity, with sincerity, in helping the human family to mature the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete itineraries of peace. “

The two wings of peace

Referencing the logo of the conference – a dove of peace — Francis emphasized the importance of its two wings: education and justice. He said:

“Peace and justice are inseparable! The prophet Isaiah says: “And the effect of righteousness will be peace” (32:17). Peace dies when it is divorced from justice, but justice is false if it is not universal. A justice addressed only to family members, compatriots, believers of the same faith is a limping justice; it is a disguised injustice!

The Pope summarised his discourse in his final words:

“Together, as brothers and sisters in the one human family willed by God, let us commit ourselves against the logic of armed power, against the monetization of relations, the arming of borders, the raising of walls, the gagging of the poor; let us oppose all this with the sweet power of prayer and daily commitment to dialogue. Our being together today is a message of trust, an encouragement to all people of good will, so that they may not surrender to the floods of violence and the desertification of altruism. God is with those who seek peace. From heaven he blesses every step which, on this path, is accomplished on earth.”

Salvador Bernal is a contributor to Aceprensa, from which this article has been republished with permission.