The Courage of Otherness

The strategy of dialogue, the courage of otherness, to demilitarize the heart – insights from Pope Francis during the signing of the document by the Holy Father and Ahmad Al-Tayyib, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar last February 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

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REUTERS: Pope Francis greets Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif.
REUTERS: Pope Francis greets Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif.

“I am happy the Lord has given me this opportunity to write a new page in the history of relations between religions in your beloved land.” This is how Pope Francis described what happened in the United Arab Emirates. In Abu Dhabi, a new page in history was truly written.

“Fraternity” has officially become a reference point for universal peace and living together, as the title of the final document, signed by the Pontiff and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyib, states. Undoubtedly, it is a religious document, signed by two personalities from very different cultural and religious contexts who are, in equally different although significant ways, points of reference for billions of believers.

Yet the document has an even greater value, for the potential international impact of this event, which was captured by the cameras of all major global broadcasters and relayed live to every corner of the Earth.

In that strip of land called the Emirates, in the Arabian Peninsula, an undisputed symbol of Islam, something happened that has changed the world. Undoubtedly, tensions will continue and, unfortunately, wars too, and perhaps, violence in the name of religions. But what we have seen and heard debunks the myth of the clash of civilizations.

Just picture the three men – the Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who welcomed the two religious leaders, the Pope and Imam Al-Tayyib – walking hand in hand on the platform leading to the massive Founder’s Memorial, which hosted the great interreligious event with leaders of different traditions from every corner of the world. This scene is bound to become part of our common imagery, and an icon of the concrete possibility of fraternity.

And then, let us recall the words of the two men of faith. Imam Al-Tayyib took the floor and in several occasions addressed Pope Francis as his “friend” and “brother.”

The two leaders have met for as many as five times but they have been working together for the same objectives and towards the same goals for some time: to lead the followers of their religions to the recognition that all men and women are brothers and sisters.

As a matter of fact, fraternity is a fundamental principle for us to live our faith, by recognizing and appreciating the faith of others and working for peace in the world. Al-Tayyib unequivocally stated that religious leaders who believe in violence have interpreted their respective sacred texts in a false and erroneous way, because God does not invite us to kill or even just terrorize those who hold different beliefs.

The Imam of Al-Azhar revealed that the document that was signed was born from an idea that emerged around a table and that reflected Bergoglio and Al-Tayyib’s shared views on the value of fraternity. The Sunni leader also encouraged Muslims in the West to be integrated in the societies where they live and realize that the security of those countries is
also their responsibility.

ens of thousands of Catholics and several thousand Muslims attended the first papal Mass in the Arabian peninsula.
ens of thousands of Catholics and several thousand Muslims attended the first papal Mass in the Arabian peninsula.

Words were also addressed to young people, urging them to use this declaration to build their future by raising barriers against hatred and teaching their children the true values of peace.

Pope Francis, on his part, referred to the logo of his visit to the Emirates: the dove with the olive branch, which recalls the primordial event of the flood, an account which is present in many religious traditions. God asked Noah to preserve humanity by entering the ark.

Today, Pope Francis urged those who were present to enter together into the “ark of fraternity.” We must always remember that faced with the truth that God is the Father of all men and women, “religious behavior needs continually to be purified from the recurrent temptation to judge others as enemies and adversaries.”

True religiosity means loving God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves, the Pope insisted. Being brothers and sisters, however, does not mean uniformity. Fraternity “also embraces the variety and difference between brothers and sisters.” Therefore, religious plurality is a reality that cannot, and must not, leave room for any kind of syncretism.

As a matter of fact, the basic premise of fraternity is the awareness of our own identity and, at the same time, the courage of otherness, which has been defined as the “heart of dialogue,” based on “sincerity of intentions.”

Pope Francis had already stressed the importance of these concepts during his trip to Egypt at the Great Mosque of Al-Azhar in Cairo. And, reiterating the same principles, the Pope highlighted how this “involves the full recognition of others and their freedom,” i.e., their religious freedom more specifically. He also referred to the importance of prayer, which has the power to purify the heart from turning in on itself and recast it in the certainty of fraternity.

Pope Francis has no doubt that “as to the future of interreligious dialogue, the first thing we need to do is pray. And pray for one another: we are brothers and sisters! [who are called] to adhere fully to the will of God, who wants all men and women to recognize that they are brothers and sisters and live as such, forming the great human family in the harmony of diversity.”

For the future, Pope Francis sees no alternative: “either we build the future together or there’s no future.” And, here, the role of religions and believers is essential in building bridges between peoples and cultures. It is an invitation for religions “to more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretense, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace.” But the Pope did not stop there.

Pope Francis & Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyib sign the Document on Human Fraternity.
Pope Francis & Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyib sign the Document on Human Fraternity.

The speech outlined a true strategy of dialogue as the way to lasting fraternity for peace. And, in this sense, other elements are needed: namely, education and justice. For true and authentic educational processes, reciprocity is necessary, the Pope insisted. “Education also takes place in relationship, in reciprocity.

Alongside the famous ancient maxim “know yourself,” we must uphold “know your brother or sister”: their history, their culture and their faith, because there is no genuine self-knowledge without the other.” A real identity is open and consciously overcomes the temptation to turn in on itself. But justice too is a decisive factor: it is the second wing of peace.

“No one can believe in God and not seek to live in justice with everyone.” The founding character that unites religions and cultural traditions is the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Inspired by the region that welcomed him, without forgetting the contradictions that characterize it and the tragedy of neighboring Yemen, that continues to cause victims especially among children, Pope Francis urged everyone to work together to “demilitarize the human heart” and embrace “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.”

The signature of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” is an icon that shows us that this is possible, even when faced by a narrative that is forcing us to believe the opposite.

Roberto Catalano
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