Shocked by savage attacks on Muslims by a radicalised Australian in New Zealand, of all places, and on Christians and other Sri Lankans by Islamists, it is clear that the virus of ISIS is spreading, despite the defeat of the so-called Caliphate in Syria.
Islamist and racist violence will never be eliminated simply by force or warfare. Perhaps only the religions involved can effectively delegitimise religiously inspired terrorism. Many minority and Christian groups have suffered terrible atrocities, but even greater numbers of casualties than that have been among Muslim groups, Sunni and Shia, leaving whole cities obliterated, and many millions of people driven out of their homelands.
Though largely overlooked in much of our secular media, key Christian and Muslim leaders have been at work to reinforce commitment to peace and universal fraternity as fundamental to their religious beliefs. Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of the Egyptian Al-Azhar mosque, Ahmad Al-Tayyib, one of the leading contemporary scholars of Sunni Islam, signed an historic document, Human Fraternity for World Peace & Living Together, in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on 4 February 2019.
Given the centuries of conflict and misunderstanding between adherents of these two religions, this amazing document draws from both Christian and Muslim writings and traditions, and identifies some of the social distress that in part drives extremism: poverty, conflict and suffering ‘as a consequence of the arms race, social injustice, corruption, inequality, moral decline, terrorism, discrimination.’
God, the planet, and human wellbeing
The document relates religious belief to human wellbeing and solidarity: ‘Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved’. In words that echo Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ on climate change and global inequality, the new document calls on believers to ‘safeguard creation and the entire universe’, and support ‘all persons, especially the poorest and those most in need’.
It identifies how these great religions can cooperate in advancing human and planetary wellbeing, and invites ‘all persons who have faith in God and faith in human fraternity to unite and work together, so that it may serve as a guide for future generations to advance a culture of mutual respect in the awareness of the great divine grace that makes all human beings brothers and sisters’.
Inspired by the Quran, the document affirms that God has forbidden killing innocent people, since ‘whoever kills a person is like one who kills the whole of humanity, and that whoever saves a person is like one who saves the whole of humanity’.
‘Human Fraternity’ appealed in the name of orphans, refugees, exiles, victims of war, persecution, and injustice, prisoners and those tortured ‘without distinction’, and in the name of all Muslims and Catholics of East and West, for all to adopt ‘a culture of dialogue as the path, mutual cooperation as the code of conduct, reciprocal understanding as the method and standard’. It called on world leaders to work strenuously to end wars, environmental decay, and moral and cultural decline. Moral deterioration ‘desensitises human conscience’ and religious values in favour of individualism and materialist philosophies, it said.
The resulting frustration and desperation lead many to fall into ‘a vortex of atheistic, agnostic, or religious extremism, or into blind and fanatic extremism’, resulting in disasters and signs of a ‘third world war wages piecemeal’, using one of Pope Francis’s key phrases. The document considers that wars and the arms race disturb the world, and claims these are ‘controlled by narrow-minded economic interests’.
The document continues that ‘major political crises, situations of injustice, and lack of equitable distribution of natural resources – from which only a rich minority benefit, to the detriment of the majority of the peoples of the earth’ generate ‘vast numbers’ of poor and sick people, and ‘catastrophic crises’. While millions of children die, ‘wasted away from poverty and hunger, there is an unacceptable silence on the international level.’
All must safeguard God’s ‘gift of life from its beginning to its natural end’. The statement condemned threats to life from ‘genocide, terrorism, forced displacement, human trafficking, abortion, and euthanasia’.
Do not use God’s name to commit murder
As for violence, the document declared that ‘religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood … they result from a political manipulation of religions’.
‘We thus call upon all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism, and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism, and oppression… God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone, and does not want His name to be used to terrorise people’.
The document affirmed the authentic teachings of religions to foster peace, human fraternity, and harmonious coexistence. It also affirmed the right to freedom of belief. ‘The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race, and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings… Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected’.
Also highlighted in the document were justice based on mercy, dialogue, tolerance and mutual acceptance, including protecting places of worship – churches, synagogues, and mosques. ‘Every attempt to attack places of worship, or threaten them by violent assaults, bombings, or destruction, is a deviation from the teachings of religions, as well as clear violation of international law.’
It condemned as ‘international crimes’ any support by arms or finance for terrorist groups that instrumentalise religion for their own purposes, or misinterpret religious texts, The document also blamed ‘policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression, and pride’ for attracting people into extremist movements.
It emphasised the right to full citizenship for all in a country, and urged avoiding the term ‘minorities’ as engendering ‘feelings of isolation and inferiority’. It was also essential to recognise the rights of women to education and employment, as well as their political rights. Children, too, had rights, especially to grow up in a sustaining family, and the sick, disabled, and elderly needed care.
The document concluded calling for it to be widely spread and studied at all levels of education and throughout the world. It invited all believers and people of goodwill to hear this appeal ‘to every upright conscience that rejects deplorable violence and blind extremism’, and instead promotes ‘values of tolerance and fraternity’.
‘God has created us to understand one another, cooperate with one another, and live as brothers and sisters who love one another.’
This unprecedented document on Human Fraternity by perhaps the two most eminent figures in the Christian and Muslim worlds has the potential to help reset relations among the great religions, but only if believers truly make this document their own.