By Elisabeth Hellenbroich


For the first time in 800 years – since the meeting, which occurred in the year 1219 between St Francis of Assisi and the Sultan al –Malik-al Kamil at the height of the crusades – a Pope visited a Muslim country. The trip of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates (February 3th -5th) marks a historic turning point in the history of Christian – Muslim dialogue.  The Pope not only met the representatives of the United Arab Emirates but he also addressed an interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi after which he together with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Al Tayyeb, signed a historic “Document  on Human Fraternity for world peace and living together”. The document is directed to all world – as well as religious leaders calling upon them to engage actively in a dialogue of peace and fraternity. It is supposed to be distributed in all schools and universities as well as encourage legislators to act according to some of the key principles which are outlined in the document.

This challenge occurs at a moment when the world is confronted with multiple bloody conflicts in the Mideast – the war in Syria, the terrible war in Yemen as well as conflicts between the US and China and between the US/ Europe and Russia threatening a new Cold War and a new round of rearmament (cancellation of INF treaty). At the same time the threats of new trade wars and sanctions from the US and Europe against China and Russia are intensifying.  The document states at one point that history shows that religious extremism, national extremism and also intolerance have produced in the world, be it in the East or West.

Christian – Muslim dialogue 800 years ago and at present

Pope Francis following along the path of St Francis of Assisi gave a new, strong impulse for the Christian – Muslim dialogue as a “motor of peace” in our present world. During his two day visit in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi February 3rd-5th), he called it “divine providence” that made him chose the same path as St Francis (1182-1226) 800 years before.  Born in Bernadone 1182 in Northern Italy and known and loved as the Saint who founded a religious order, dedicating his life to the poor, sick and marginalized, St Francis lived through the political turmoil of the 13th century “Holy Roman Empire” which was locked in a culture of war and engaged in a series of crusades against Moslems, Jews and Heretics. It was during the fifth crusade, in 1219, that Francis began an amazing journey that directly opposed the culture of war and enmity.  Together with a companion he set out to visit the Sultan of Egypt Malik- al- Kamil, the nephew of Saladin. As St Bonaventura described in his “Major Life of St Francis” the historic event: “The Sultan asked them by whom and why and in what capacity they had been sent, and how they got there; but Francis replied that they had been sent by God, not by men, to show him and his subjects the way of salvation and proclaim the truth of the Gospel message. When the Sultan saw his enthusiasm and courage, he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him.”

A real highlight of the papal visit in Abu Dubai was when on Monday evening February 4rth Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Mohammad al Tayyeb signed the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. It marks a milestone in relations between Christianity- and Islam and it will have a strong impact on the international scene.  The key elements of the document is the principle that all children of God are called to be in fraternity and condemn violence in the name of religion without compromises. The two leaders affirmed their intention to work for peace in the world, and show a common responsibility of the religions – which had never existed like that before.

Previous to the signing of the document at an interreligious meeting, the Pope gave an address to civil  authorities as well as to the Diplomatic Corps, where he underline the significance of the logo that had been chosen for his journey. The Logo depicts a “dove with an olive branch.”

Fraternity as the Pope emphasized in his speech, is based on the recognition, “that God is at the origin of the one human family (…) Fraternity is established here at the roots of our common humanity, as “a vocation contained in God’s plan of creation.” From this follows, that in the name of God the Creator every form of violence must be condemned without hesitation and “no violence can be justified in the name of religion.”  The Pope emphasized that “there is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future.  Therefore religions in particular “cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures.”  In order to build a future which is based on peace the most important constituent elements are “Education and Justice”.

“De-militarize the human heart” 

This is particularly important in respect to young people “who are often surrounded by negative message and fake news need to learn not to surrender to the seductions of materialism, hatred and prejudice.”  He underlined that it is necessary to give a sign and to show that it is possible to meet each other, to respect each other and to dialogue; the Islamic and Christian world despite its multiplicity of cultures and traditions, the Pope stressed, values the ‘common’ values and knows how to protect them which is: life, family, religious meaning, honor the elderly, human education of young people and others.”  Hence he urged that it is necessary to “de-militarize the human heart.”  Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the World’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word “War.” Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya,” the Pope stated.

In the introduction of the official “Fraternity” document the two religious leaders underlined the “friendly and fraternal atmosphere were we shared the joys, sorrows and problems of our contemporary world. We did this by considering scientific and technical progress, therapeutic achievements, the digital era, the mass media and communications. We reflected also on the level of poverty, conflict and suffering of so many brothers and sisters in different parts of the world as a consequence of the arms race and many other causes. From our fraternal and open discussions, the idea of this document on ‘Human Fraternity’ was conceived. It is a text that has been given honest and serious thought so as to be a joint declaration of good and heartfelt aspirations. It is a document that invites all persons who have faith in God and faith in human fraternity to unite and work together so that it may serve as guide for future generations to advance a culture of mutual respect in the awareness of the great divine grace that makes all human beings brother and sisters.”

It further emphasizes to whom the document is addressed and states, that “the two religious leaders called upon the leaders of the world as well as the architects of international policy and world economy, to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace….to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts and environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.” That they also called “upon philosophers, religious figures, artists and media professionals and men and women of culture in every part of the world to rediscover the values of peace, goodness, beauty, justice, human fraternity and coexistence in order to confirm the importance of these values as anchors of elevation for all and to promote them everywhere.”

Signs of a “third world war being fought piecemeal”

The two religious leaders Pope Francis and Grand Imam Al Tayyeb situate identify the causes for today’s crisis of the modern world:  a “desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles.” They note the paradox that “despite fantastic steps taken by modern civilization in the fields of science, technology, medicine, industry and welfare,” there is at the same time “a moral deterioration  that influences international action agnostic and religious extremism .”

The document reaffirms several key principles which are at the core of human society:

* the ‘family’  being the fundamental nucleus of society and humanity is essential in bringing children into the world, raising them, educating them and providing them with solid moral formation and domestic security.

* The importance of a good ‘education’ and the need to transmit moral values in religious education that confronts the tendencies of selfishness, radicalism and blind extremism.  The two leaders call it a “deviation from religious teachings “ and  call upon “all concerned to stop using religions or 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.”

*Another principle is “freedom.” They uphold that each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. And that 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.

*They furthermore uphold that justice, based on mercy, is the path to follow in order to achieve a dignified life to which every human being has a right. That places of worship be protected:  synagogues, mosques and churches.”

The two leaders strongly condemn “terrorism”, which “threatens the security of people be they in the East or West, North or the South. It disseminates panic, terror and pessimism, but this is not due to religion even when terrorists instrumentalize it. It is due, rather, to an accumulation of incorrect interpretations of religious texts and to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression and pride.”

They also underline the concept of “citizenship” based on the equality of rights and duties under which all enjoy justice. And that there is recognition of the rights of women to education and employment. The protection of the rights of children to grow up in a family environment, to receive nutrition education and support and the protection of the rights of the elderly, disabled and oppressed.

After 800 years of bloody conflicts, religious confrontations and two world wars the two religious leaders correctly urge at the end of the document that their formulated principles should become “object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation.”


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