This has been a week of political extremes, from the president’s asinine renewal of a nuclear arms race with Russia to the left’s overly optimistic “Green New Deal.”
The political cacophony overshadowed a momentous bit of news. On Tuesday, Pope Francis met in Abu Dhabi with Egypt’s Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar — a leader in thought and theology for the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Sunni Muslims.
Together with 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, the two clerics represent humanity’s two largest faith traditions and almost 40 percent of the world’s population.
Their meeting is reason enough for news. But, this meeting bore special fruit. They issued a joint proclamation, calling Christians and Muslims to work together to fight extremism, foster peace and equality and end persecution of minority populations of all faiths.
The pair declared “religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”
The joint statement went on to “call upon intellectuals, philosophers, religious figures, artists, media professionals and men and women of culture in every part of the world, to rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence in order to confirm the importance of these values as anchors of salvation for all, and to promote them everywhere.”
This call to unity is the latest outreach by the pope and grand imam — both of whom have faced criticism from within for reaching out too broadly to other faiths.
For the pope, it’s a continuation of the Second Vatican Council and the “Nostra Aetate” statement, which extended a long-overdue olive branch to the Jewish faith and affirmed the Church sees God working in all major faith traditions.
In response, al-Tayeb urged Muslims to “embrace your brothers the Christian citizens everywhere, for they are our partners.”
The obvious stumbling block to this détente is fear and hatred stirred up around the so-called “Islamic State” — thugs and murderers who represent Islam like Westboro “Baptist” Church and the Inquisition represent Christianity.
True leaders of Christianity and Islam have long denounced using God’s name to incite violence. But, this week’s joint proclamation came not in spite of Christian and Muslim differences, but based on our shared faith.
“We thus call upon all concerned to stop using religions to 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,” the proclamation reads. “We ask this on the basis of our common belief in God who did not create men and women to be killed or to fight one another, nor to be tortured or humiliated in their lives and circumstances. God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want His name to be used to terrorize people.”
Again, the most obvious target of this statement is ISIL’s radical perversion of Islam. But, people of all faiths — and of no faith — have a shared and more powerful enemy that breeds injustice, persecution and violence. The pope and grand imam described this enemy as “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.”
The clerics elevated as “transcendental principles” the importance of the family, sanctity of life, protection of the marginalized and equality for women in education, employment and political rights.
This isn’t the first time the Vatican and Muslim leaders have opened dialogue. But, this statement is groundbreaking because it doesn’t merely preach tolerance of differences. It elevates adherents of both faiths to embrace each other above our differences, in our commonality as children of God. Taken outside a religious context, it elevates us all to embrace our shared humanity.
In two sentences, the pope and grand imam call down the ire of conservatives and fear-mongers of both faiths.
“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 stated. “This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives.”
This is hard to swallow for some who see interfaith dialogue as a threat to faith itself. Without any work at all, we can find differences between us — reasons to blame, to hate and fear, reasons to hide from the difficult call of all major world religions, and every valid secular philosophy: the call to love one another.
In their joint statement, the pope and grand imam call us to rise above such spiritual and intellectual laziness, and to dare for a world in which we remain strong in our own faith, while opening our arms with compassion for those who walk a different path. It is a bold vision.
With work and courage, I pray we collectively make it reality.