A few weeks ago, an international peace conference was held in Cairo at Al Azhar University, the most prestigious centre of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.
Speaking at the invitation of its grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, to an audience of some 300 religious leaders, professors and scholars from Egypt and several other countries in the region, Pope Francis reminded them that “religion is not meant only to unmask evil, it has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, today perhaps more than ever before.”
The Pope called on Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Egypt and throughout the Middle East to join in building “a new civilization of peace” by declaring together “a firm and clear ‘no’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion and in the name of God” and to “affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”
“What is needed are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction.”
The grand iman spoke first, calling for an alliance of all organizations that work for peace. He condemned the small minority who misinterpret Islam to kill and terrorise innocent people and accused “some parties,” whom he did not name, “of financing these persons and groups” and denounced the arms trade “as the principal cause of our problems today.”
The Pope began his address by thanking “my brother” the grand imam for the invitation to speak.
Interestingly, considering his upcoming meeting with Donald Trump, the Pope remarked “it is disconcerting to note that, as the concrete realities of people’s lives are ignored in favour of obscure machinations, demagogic forms of populism are on the rise.”
These forms of populism, he said, “certainly do not help to consolidate peace and stability. No incitement to violence will guarantee peace, and every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is, in reality, a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence.”
He insisted that declarations are not enough “to prevent conflicts and build peace. It is essential that we spare no effort in eliminating situations of poverty and exploitation, where extremism more easily takes root, and in blocking the flow of money and weapons destined to those who provoke violence.” Moreover, he said, “it is necessary to stop the proliferation of arms that, if they are produced and traded, will sooner or later be used.”
He described violence as “the denial of every authentic religiosity” and declared that “as religious leaders we are called to unmask the violence that dresses itself with presumed sacredness….as religious leaders we are called to denounce the violations against human dignity and against human rights, to bring to light the attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion and to condemn them as an idolatrous falsification of God,” who “is the God of peace.”
Emphasizing the importance of dialogue, such as that being conducted together by the Holy See and Al Azhar, he declared that “in the field of dialogue, especially interreligious dialogue, we are called to walk together, in the conviction that the future of all depends also on the encounter between religions and culture.”
He told the conference that in dialogue it is necessary “to educate to respectful openness and to sincere dialogue with the other, recognizing the fundamental rights and freedoms, especially that of religion, constitutes the best way to build the future together, to be constructors of a civilization.”
At this critical moment in history, Francis said, “the only alternative to a civilization of encounter is the incivility of confrontation” and “to truly contrast the barbarities of the one who breathes on hate and incites to violence, one must accompany and bring to maturity generations that respond to the incendiary logic of evil with the patient growth of good.”
He emphasized the importance of educating the young “because there will not be peace without an adequate education of future generations.”
He concluded by saying that religious and political leaders as well as “those who are responsible for information” are called “by God, by history and by the future to start, each in their own field, processes of peace.”
The two religious leaders embraced to a standing ovation from the audience.
This inspirational gathering was quickly juxtaposed against the Trump cabaret replete with hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new arms to pour into the Middle East that he obscenely referred to as “a lot of beautiful military equipment”.
He then gave a lecture where he seemed to be declaring his friendship with the Sunni Muslims of the world and his enmity towards the Shia Muslims.
Trump blamed Iran – rather than Isis – for “fuelling sectarian violence”, pitied the Iranian people for their “despair” a day after they had freely elected a liberal reformer as their president, and demanded the further isolation of the largest Shiite country in the Middle East. The regime responsible for “so much instability” is Iran. The Shiite Hezbollah were condemned. So were the Shiite Yemenis. Trump’s Sunni Saudi hosts glowed with warmth at such wisdom.
“Our friends will never question our support, and our enemies will never doubt our determination,” he grandiosely declared.
The politicians and business people of the world have lost the plot. They have created the inequality and greed that provides fertile ground for unrest and environmental devastation. They see caring for society as a drain on their profits and power.
There are things about organised religions that trouble me but if they can change their focus from a pathway to heaven to helping us find the pathway to humanity, if they have the courage to recall our leaders to decency, then they deserve our support.