In a dramatic initiative to ease Muslim-Christian tensions and violent conflict, the Pope and the Grand Imam, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, pledged last February to “work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace”. Although largely ignored by secular media, notably in the U.S., the leaders of the world’s two largest religious bodies jointly created a document stating that “faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved”.
Intended as a model and a guide for peacemaking and dialog in our times, the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” was signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Sheikh Abu Tayeb in Abu Dhabi. It was the first visit ever of a Pope to the Arabian peninsula, the cradle of Islam. While Christians have led the refugee flight from Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian territories, the Pope has worked to enhance understanding and respect for Christians now living in predominantly Muslim countries. Improving relationships with Muslim leaders is a priority of Pope Francis’ papacy and can also be seen as repairing the damage done by his predecessor Pope Benedict. A 2006 speech by the former Pope was widely interpreted as characterizing Islam as a religion which condones violence.
The “Human Fraternity” document signed in February and the current Pope’s warm relationship and ongoing dialog with the Grand Imam and other Muslim leaders encourage “all who believe that God has created us to understand one another, cooperate with one another and live as brothers and sisters who love one another.” The document identifies several obstacles to creation of a culture of dialog and peace in today’s world.
Echoing Martin Luther King’s observation that our technological advance has surpassed our knowledge of how to live in peace, the document identifies the causes of conflict today as “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.” Strongly condemned are religious groups who, “have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted.” Such “False Religion” has supported military build up leading to “signs of a ‘third world war being fought piecemeal’”.
Also contributing to the crises today the document points to increasing economic inequality, and the exploitation of women and denial of their rights. In its conclusion the document urges “research and reflection” on its contents in all places of learning “to educate new generations to bring goodness and peace to others, and to be defenders everywhere of the rights of the oppressed and of the least of our brothers and sisters”.
Unfortunately, most American media emphasized the political implications of the February meeting of the two leaders while ignoring the document’s contents. The two New York Times articles reporting on the Pope’s visit to the Arabian peninsula failed to mention the document or its contents. By contrast, the official Vatican News headline the day after the meeting celebrated “the historic declaration of peace, freedom, women’s rights”. Conservative Catholic media and commentators rued the document language characterizing the diversity of religions as “willed by God in His wisdom”. One commentator speculated that “this is not what Muslim converts (to Christianity, ed.) want to hear from their Pope”.
The lack of attention paid the document is troubling. Our secular media’s tepid response suggests we live in a world captivated by the force of armaments. Ignorance of this significant effort to bring about a world of “human fraternity” reminds of Stalin’s reputed response to the suggestion that the Pope be invited to the Tehran Conference in 1943. “And how many divisions does the Pope have?” the Russian leader was reported to have asked.
Despite the neglect of the “Human Fraternity” document, and the opposition of Catholic critics of the Pope’s embrace of “religious pluralism”, Francis and the Vatican are following through on the dialog with Muslim leaders. Meetings in August resulted in some edits of the February document and were followed by another conversation between the Grand Imam and the Pope this month in Rome. Discussion focused on the progress of the joint “Superior Committee” in efforts to achieve the objectives agreed on in February.
To read the complete document signed in February 2019 go to: