Pope Francis’ recent sojourn in the Arabian Peninsula was a powerful symbolic advance for interfaith dialogue: the first visit by a Roman Catholic pontiff to the original homeland of the Islamic faith. Francis joined eminent Muslim, Jewish and other Christian clerics in an appeal for the communal coexistence so desperately needed by a world suffering violence and persecution across humanity’s religious divides. The visit’s moving imagery included Christians and Muslims together attending the first papal mass on the peninsula. Yet this powerful symbolism will have real impact only if it inspires us all to take concrete steps—notably by governments, educational institutions and faith-based organizations.

Pope Francis is welcomed by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 3, 2019. (Andrew Medichini/Pool via The New York Times)
Pope Francis is welcomed by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 3, 2019. (Andrew Medichini/Pool via The New York Times)

The pope attended a United Arab Emirates (UAE) government-sponsored interfaith conference that builds upon recent decades of dialogue across religious divides. Building a relationship with the Islamic world has been a focus for Pope Francis, who will continue that effort next month with a two-day visit to Morocco.

This thread of interfaith engagement has paralleled, and opposed, the persistence of interreligious violence and persecution. The early 1990s saw Al Azhar, the historic and influential Sunni Muslim university in Cairo, launch a high-level initiative that has pursued formal, high-level dialogue with governments and religious leaders from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions. A grassroots movement in Lebanon, one of the Middle East’s most religiously pluralistic countries, led to the start in 1993 of a national Christian-Muslim dialogue to overcome sectarian differences.

The Jordanian government spearheaded the 2004 Amman Message, an intra-faith effort that called for tolerance within the diversity of Islam, and “A Common Word between Us and You,” a 2007 letter by Muslim scholars that declares why Islamic and Christian doctrines call upon Muslims and Christians to live peacefully together.

More recently, the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration, authored by Islamic scholar Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah and signed by hundreds of Muslim leaders around the world, builds upon scriptural research and advocacy for rights of religious minorities in Muslim societies. Like this month’s papal visit, this document drew a multi-faith audience committed to upholding values of tolerance and pluralism that are central to the Qur’an and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad. The United Arab Emirates has supported bin Bayyah’s Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, gathering religious scholars, academics and policymakers annually in Abu Dhabi to translate faith-based peacebuilding into action.

Interfaith dialogue is vital not only to ending outright sectarian warfare—as in Yemen, Burma (Myanmar) or the Central African Republic. It also is essential to maintaining peace in nations with traditions of religious freedom and mutual respect, such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, which all have suffered high-profile hate crimes and violence against religious communities.

The United Arab Emirates’ Role

The pope’s visit to the UAE is part of its government-declared “Year of Tolerance 2019”—an initiative that will include events to celebrate international and religious diversity. The government has established a Ministry of Tolerance, the Arab world’s first, to work against “sectarian, ideological, cultural and religious bigotry,” in the words of Vice President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid.

The UAE’s pursuit of tolerance is worth watching closely. It is a domestic imperative, as about 80 percent of the country’s 10 million people are immigrants of disparate religious faiths, including an estimated one million Catholics. Also, the government’s initiative wins it international approval, aligning with global efforts such as the U.S. government’s 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and its resulting Potomac Declaration. The initiatives for religious openness clash with issues of political tolerance, as reflected in reporting by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, of imprisonment of political dissidents.

The Vatican’s Initiatives

The pope’s visit is part of the Vatican’s strategy to build interfaith harmony and pursue dialogue with the global Muslim community, an effort that began in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council. The council, which gathered thousands of senior Catholic clerics, issued a 1965 declaration that, for the first time, expressed the church’s “esteem [for] … the Moslems.” The Vatican council established a high-level church body for dialogues with non-Christian communities that has held a series of conferences with Muslim scholars to build understanding and reduce tensions.

Tensions between the Vatican and Muslims flared briefly after Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, delivered a 2006 lecture that many Muslims saw as critical of Islam. Benedict then worked to repair the breach. Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has traveled often to non-Christian lands—including Egypt, Bangladesh and Burma—appealing for religious pluralism, peaceful coexistence, and respect for human rights. In his visit to the UAE, he said it was incumbent upon Muslims and Christians to “build a future together or there will be no future.”

In the visit, the pope spoke at the Global Conference of Human Fraternity—a multi-faith, if male-dominated, gathering. With the most prominent Muslim cleric present—Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the senior imam of Al Azhar University, Francis signed a Document on Human Fraternity. That declaration calls on people to uphold faith-based values of mercy, dignity, compassion and common humanity to guarantee equal rights for all.

The declaration makes “an invitation to reconciliation and fraternity among all believers, indeed among believers and non-believers, and among all people of good will; […it] may be an appeal to every upright conscience that rejects deplorable violence and blind extremism.” Together the senior religious figures called for an end to the use of religion to justify violence and bloodshed, leading with a resounding message of peace.

Interfaith Peace: Making It Happen

This high-level demonstration of interfaith dialogue sets a clear agenda. But any lasting impact—in the UAE, the Gulf region or around the world—will depend on people and institutions holding each other accountable to the values of peaceful coexistence. The declaration acknowledges the need for its messages to be mainstreamed: “Al-Azhar and the Catholic Church ask that this Document become the object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation.”

A 2007 USIP study of interfaith dialogue, Unity in Diversity, found that “one of the most significant challenges is how to transfer the Christian-Muslim dialogue from the elites and intellectuals to the masses and to a wider segment of society.” USIP’s research has found evidence for a number of concrete steps that can have impact:

  • Governments can establish regular roundtables with civil society representatives of disparate religious faiths. That approach has been taken by the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
  • Educational bodies can draw from the experiences and documents of interfaith dialogue, such as the Document on Human Fraternity, to develop values-based curricula. In Central Asia, Uzbekistan is currently pursuing such an effort, and USIP has supported similar projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma and Indonesia.
  • At local levels, faith-based organizations can help break cycles of violence and replace militant attitudes with a willingness to listen to people from other communities. Amid sectarian violence in Nigeria, two clerics from the city of Kaduna—Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye—founded an Interfaith Mediation Center that has halted bloodshed in many communities.

In news headlines, Facebook posts and ordinary conversations worldwide, religious believers and non-believers alike applauded the powerful images of peacebuilding in the UAE’s gathering of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders, and notably in Pope Francis’ visit. People wept with joy at his plea for interfaith respect and compassion, intoned in languages from Arabic to English to Tagalog. Hopes of many were renewed at seeing a gathering that recently might have seemed impossible—thousands of Christians and Muslims praying together for peace with a Roman Catholic pontiff in the desert birthplace of Islam.

The iconic images showed what is possible. The reality that is built from it now will depend on the actions of governments and ordinary people.

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