pope meets imams

On all counts 4 February 2019 was a memorable day for the world! On that day, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, met in Abu Dhabi, and together signed the historic and pathbreaking document entitled ‘Human fraternity for world peace and living together’. The document is one of the most comprehensive ones written in recent times. It not only analyses the realities which grip mankind today but also provides a blueprint for all in order to address and ultimately overcome the hate, divisiveness and violence of today!

The two world leaders set the tone and the raison d’être of the document right in the introduction. They state, from our fraternal and open discussions, and from the meeting that expressed profound hope in a bright future for all human beings, 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 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.” The document above all is a ‘Magna Carta’, a way of proceeding for all of humanity, provided there is the necessary political will to ensure that.

Taking note of that historic meeting and the signing of the document, the United Nations decided to observe (beginning 2021) every 4 February as the International Day of Human Fraternity’. The primary aim of the day is to tell the world that everyone is free to choose a religious or irreligious belief in his/her life and no one else has the right to discriminate, hate, or molest a person due to his certain religious or irreligious association. The complementing aim is to spread awareness across the world that all religious communities are obliged to respect each other if they want the world to prosper peacefully and if they don’t want another great war.

The theme for the day this year is, ‘Human Fraternity in Action which means that humanity must disperse and renounce all kinds of religious bigotry and xenophobia. Thus, the global community has agreed, in theory, upon developing a new global culture where no one is hated or discriminated against based on his/her caste, creed, skin colour, religion, or something like that. After the Holocaust, it is the greatest action against xenophobia, religious bigotry, and hate for “others”. First-ever in history, the global community united on the platform of the UN has decided that every religious community would be treated equally. Sadly, the ground reality is so very different. The responsibility to do much more therefore lies with the decision -makers and all people everywhere!

‘Fraternity’ is not a new concept. Though male- sounding, it embraces every single human in totality. It means brotherhood and sisterhood or a belief in co-existence. Thus, all the member states of the UN are directed by the United Nations to observe the ‘International Day of Human Fraternity’ in the best and appropriate manner to promote interreligious harmony, friendship, cooperation, and acceptance. ‘Fraternity’ is also a non-negotiable dimension of the Indian Constitution appearing in the Preamble. A pillar of our democracy. It refers to a feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood and a sense of belonging with the country among its people. The Preamble declares that fraternity has to assure two things—the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation.

Already at the inaugural day in 2021 the United Nations noted that there is deep concern regarding acts that advocate religious hatred and, thereby, undermine the spirit of tolerance and respect for diversity, particularly during this crisis caused by the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which requires a global response based on unity, solidarity and renewed multilateral cooperation.

The backgrounder called upon all to recognize the valuable contribution of people of all religions, or beliefs, to humanity and the contribution that dialogue among all religious groups can make towards an improved awareness and understanding of the common values shared by all humankind.  It also underlined the importance of raising awareness about different cultures and religions, or beliefs, and the promotion of tolerance, which involves societal acceptance and respect for religious and cultural diversity, including with regard to religious expression. Education, in particular at school, should contribute in a meaningful way to promoting tolerance and the elimination of discrimination based on religion or belief. It highlights that tolerance, pluralistic tradition, mutual respect and the diversity of religions and beliefs, promote human fraternity. Activities aimed at interreligious and intercultural dialogue in order to enhance peace and social stability, respect for diversity and mutual respect and to create, at the global level, and also at the regional, national and local levels, an environment conducive to peace and mutual understanding- which must be encouraged and even mainstreamed!

This is a tall order when hate and violence, divisiveness and denigration, xenophobia and jingoism, intolerance and exclusiveness are on the rise and even institutionalised! Ruling political dispensations and their cronies, as we see in India, legitimise, foment and foster such heinous acts. In an open letter (3 Feb.22)  to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, in the context of the escalation of hate and violence in  Gujarat, a group of concerned citizens wrote, “We, a group of citizens from different parts of Gujarat, would draw your attention to the inflammatory hate messaging on the social media and public calls for violence against the Muslim community, following the unfortunate, condemnable murder of Kishan Bharwad in Dhandhuka by certain criminal elements…..Such hate messages and public calls for violence against a community are criminal and dangerous and have the potential of instigating further violence, and it is the duty of the state to track and apprehend such criminal elements to ensure that law and order prevails.” Until and unless this hate and violence is nipped in the bud by the political class and committedly eschewed by all, nothing may change. But there is hope!

In a recent interview to Vatican News, Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in the Vatican, said I very much hope that the occasion of this Day of Human Fraternity, on 4 February, will be a day for opening our eyes and for giving thanks to God for making us brothers and sisters, and for asking Him to help us to live as the brothers and sisters we are since He is our common Father…. One of the things we will learn is that human fraternity is not the exclusive prerogative of some group, some minority, some élite, some race, some culture: it’s a common vocation, and God knows, we need to recognise that and we need to live that. It’s what Jesus came to teach us, gave his life for us. So, the Day for Human Fraternity is a day to give thanks and to ask God to bless all our brothers and sisters with hope and with courage for living our human vocation together”.

A couple of days ago, Pope Francis said that “Fraternity, means reaching out to others, respecting them, and listening to them with an open heart.” The Holy Father then expressed hope that we will take concrete steps, together with the believers of other religions and people of goodwill “to affirm that today is a time of fraternity, avoiding fuelling clashes, divisions, and closures…. Let us pray and commit ourselves every day, so that we may all live in peace as brothers and sisters.”

The ‘International Day of Human Fraternity’ is therefore a clarion call to all – to be resolute in defending and promoting justice and the rights of all so that in sustainable peace, we can truly live as sisters and brothers in dignity, equity and love in this our common home! A major challenge: do we have the courage to face it through our actions?

(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com )


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