In this month’s Catholic Thinking article, Bernard Teo CSsR, discusses the joint Declaration On Human Fraternity – For World Peace and Living Together, signed on 4 February 2019 by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, at an interreligious summit in Abu Dhabi. Dr Bernard Teo lectures in Christian Ethics at Good Shepherd Theological College, Auckland.
On Human Fraternity
A Timely Prophetic Joint Declaration
On February 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis and Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Cairo, signed the joint Declaration On Human Fraternity. It was a hugely significant historic landmark in interreligious dialogue, co-operation, and understanding for our times.
Pope Francis is widely celebrated for promoting global understanding and peace between nations, compassion for the poor, the hungry, those suffering violence, wars, displacements, and other global issues affecting life and humanity’s future. The Grand Imam Dr Ahmed Al-Tayeb has won praise for promoting peace and respect between peoples, between Muslims and Christians in particular, and for helping to combat extreme interpretations of Islam. He holds a great influence and authority on the followers of the theological Ash’ari and Maturidi traditions in Sunni Islam. The authority and influence of these two religious leaders reach out to more than two billion believers combined between the two faiths worldwide.
“The authority and influence of these two religious leaders reach out to more than two billion believers combined between the two faiths worldwide.”
This Declaration is uncannily timely for us here in Aotearoa New Zealand. The unprecedented and unadulterated evil of the terrorist attacks on the two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, resulting in the loss of 50 innocent lives of our Muslim brothers and sisters and the serious wounding of many others, affected us all both here and abroad. It is heart-warming to see New Zealanders from all walks of life coming together to show support and love for the Muslim community in this difficult time. Above all, they made a powerful unmitigated public stand against efforts aimed at fostering hate, fear, divisions, and violence, which are foreign to New Zealand’s values.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Ms Jacinda Ardern, has risen magnificently to the occasion. Her humanity and compassion, so glaringly lacking in many public figures across the world today, shines as a beacon of light and hope as she led the country through unchartered waters, and brought together a diverse people still reeling in shock and pain. Her kind of leadership is hailed in many countries as worthy of emulation in their leaders. She embodied in many ways the spirit and teachings of this Declaration.
Background to this Declaration
Before this joint Declaration was issued, several high-level meetings were held between representatives of both sides. These meetings were characterised by a ‘sharing of the joys, sorrows and problems of our contemporary world’. They reflected on hot-button issues afflicting contemporary life, and questions about the future of life on earth itself. These include the growing social divide, poverty, wars, environmental degradation, the migration and suffering of so many people in different parts of the world. The sources of these social ills, they contend, spring from the arms race, social injustice, corruption, inequality, moral decline, terrorism, discrimination, and extremism in both religious and secular circles. Other factors include the deification of the human individual, the widespread denial of life’s ultimate meaning, together with the powerful forces of unbridled greed driving the market economy. These have contributed significantly to the desensitisation of many human consciences.
This joint statement therefore aims to be a wake-up call, a pointed challenge, and yet a powerful compassionate appeal to all human beings regarding the universal crises we face today as a human community. We are, and can be, a lot better than this. We can change for the better. But we will need to work together towards a better world, generating hope not only for ourselves but also for future generations.
Common theological ground for the Declaration and its practical implications for believers
At the heart of this joint Declaration is the God question.
Who is this God in whose name we religious leaders teach?
Their answer – we issue this Declaration
“in the name of this God:
- who has ‘created the universe, creatures and all human beings (who are equal on account of his mercy)’;
- who has ‘created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace’;
- who has formed us in ‘His divine wisdom to protect the gift of life from its beginning up to its natural end’.”
It is before this God that every human being is ultimately accountable to.
On the foundation of who God is, who we are, and who we are called to be, a religious response to this God for adherents of both faiths can never be privatised affairs. They have huge social ramifications, not only for particular communities and countries, but above all for the global community.
Believers must recognise that all human beings belong to one single human family before God. Their lives must therefore be governed by the values of Fraternity, Freedom, Justice, and Mercy. Believers are duty-bound to work towards peace, mutual understanding and harmony between peoples, and strengthening human bonds on account of our shared humanity. They must seek justice, but justice must be grounded on mercy. They must be responsible for the goods of creation and the entire universe. Supporting the rights of all persons especially the poorest, women, children, those most vulnerable and those on the margins of life are the hallmarks of true believers. Authentic religion promotes human freedom, especially religious freedom. This is because this God ‘unites divided hearts and elevates the human soul,’ and all life and the goods of creation are pure gift to be shared.
Because of who God is, the Declaration emphatically rejects and condemns practices that are threats to life such as genocide, terrorism, forced displacement of peoples, human trafficking, abortion and euthanasia. Nor should religion be used to incite wars, violence, hateful attitudes, hostility, extremism, justifying acts of murder, the shedding of innocent blood, or destroying places of worship. The name of God can never be used to terrorise people because God doesn’t need to be defended by anyone. Deviations from these norms are often the result of deviant religious teachings or from political manipulation of religions.
This Declaration undoubtedly challenges all believers of both faiths to search their hearts with rigorous honesty before this God to whom they are ultimately accountable. Becoming a true human community together is a universal call and task. Believers need to ask how they relate to one another, to others who do not share their beliefs, to the earth resources, and to the future of life. They must consider very seriously before God the values and social policies that underpin their lives, and their support for the kind of public figures who realise these values through public policies enacted on their behalf.
This Declaration’s message is not only for believers to work towards reconciliation and fraternity, but it is also for adherents of other faiths, for non-believers, and for all people of good will.
The Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together is on the Vatican website: tinyurl.com/Document-Human-Fraternity or https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/travels/2019/outside/documents/papa-francesco_20190204_documento-fratellanza-umana.html
Dr Bernard Teo CSsR, from Singapore, belongs to the Redemptorist congregation. Ordained in 1979, Fr Bernard served in Singapore and Malaysia. He undertook graduate studies in Moral Theology 1985‒1989 at The Catholic University of America. From the early 1990s he taught at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne (University of Divinity). He also taught in Singapore and the Philippines at the St Alphonsus Theology and Mission Institute in Davao. Fr Bernard’s research interests include Ethics in Medicine, Fundamental Morals and Social Morals. Now based in Auckland, Fr Bernard is posted to the Redemptorist Parish in Glendowie as a resource person for their mission.
The historic three-day interreligious summit, 2–4 February, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, held huge significance and symbolism for both Muslim and Christian communities, as it was the first time when a Catholic Pope and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar met together on the Arab Peninsula, where Islam was born.
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar heads the Al-Azhar Mosque and by extension Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, and is responsible for official religious matters along with the Grand Mufti of Egypt. Al-Azhar is one of the oldest universities in the world and is considered the chief centre of Arabic literature and Islamic religious learning.