I participated at the Al-Azhar International Peace Conference in Cairo, Egypt last 27-28 April 2017 (1-2 Shaaban 1438 AH) which was attended by a group of leaders from around the world and from various faiths and worldviews. I was there as one of the two representatives of the Rev. Dr. Efraim Tendero, General Secretary of World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). With me was Prof. Dr. Christof Sauer, Director of WEA’s International Institute for Religious Freedom. PeaceBuilders Community, Inc. (PBCI) serves WEA as one of its consulting groups on international peace issues.
PBCI is also a peacebuilding mission to the Philippines sent by Mennonite Church Canada — a member of the Canadian Council of Churches. The Canadian Council of Churches is affiliated with the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches.
There were more than 400 peace-advocating religious leaders who, according to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, are “calling for peace between religious leaders, between societies and between all the countries of the world”.
During the opening plenary session, one of the main speakers was The Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. What he said during that event resonated with what’s in my heart and mind. He started by quoting a verse from The Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:8). He affirmed the sanctity, the righteousness, and urgency of peacemaking. “To make peace is holy work” he said. “Everyone who brings peace, real peace, just peace is serving the will of God. For religious leaders and for faithful at the grassroots it should therefore be our common agenda and our highest priority.”
He lamented the fact that conflicts are happening due to the misuse of religion. “We meet at a critical time for this country and for this region, and for many regions in the world, where there are signs of division and polarization in peoples and nations, and some are also dividing people according to their different faiths,” he said. “We see this in many parts of the world. We see also that religious identity and references to religion are misused for this purpose, and are even used to legitimize violence and terror in the name of religion. This is not what our children need to live together in peace. This is not what will correspond to the aspirations and hopes of our youth.”
Rev. Tveit also reminded the conference participants that, as believers in One God who “created One humanity to live together with its diversity and differences… we should call for the care of the life of everybody created by God.” He also said that “we are accountable to the Creator when we meet one another as God’s creation.” He called on the religious leaders regarding their sacred responsibilities: “As religious leaders we have a special responsibility to elevate the sanctity of the life of all human beings created by the Holy God. As communities of faith we are called to show this as love to one another, in relations of respect and care to everybody.” Love, according to Dr. Tveit, must energize our work for peacemaking. “We should demonstrate what it means to care for and protect one another. We should affirm one another that we need the love and the care, but even more, that we need to provide to one another the same rights to be citizens, to be neighbours, to be human beings with our basic human needs addressed for food, water, security, health, education, freedom to believe and to share our convictions with one another”, he said. Because of love, Dr. Tveit urged religious leaders “to struggle against racism, exclusion of refugees, division and separation – still in the name of religion, even our Christian faith.”
He concluded by affirming our duties as religious leaders. “As religious leaders, gathered today for peace, we have the duty of speaking with one voice,” he said. He continued by focusing “particularly against any advocacy of hatred that amounts to inciting violence, discrimination or any other violation of the equal dignity that all human beings enjoy regardless of their religion, belief, gender, political or other opinion, national or social origin, or any other status.”
The discussions during the first day was so relevant, despite my difficulty listening to the electronically-provided English translation from mostly Arabic speakers. The topics include —
:: Peace challenges in the contemporary world
:: The impact of misinterpretations of religious texts on world peace
:: The impact of poverty and disease, deprivation and exploitation on world peace
:: The culture of peace in religions: Reality and Hope
The second day of the conference was highlighted by the messages by His Excellency Professor Ahmed El-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and by His Holiness Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church.
In Professor Ahmed El-Tayyeb’s speech, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar denounced preaching violence in the name of God. He insists that “citizenship and peaceful co-existence are the greatest challenges that have to be focused on and built upon to counter fanaticism, terrorism and baseless theological claims and conceptualisations… Citizenship is the major guarantee for achieving absolute equality in rights and duties.”
He also emphasized that religions and civilizations are not necessarily terrorists because of the violent misrepresentation of some people within them. “Islam is not a religion of terrorism because a group of its followers warped some of its texts and then started shedding blood and killing innocent people,” Tayeb said. “Christianity is not a religion of terrorism because a group of its followers carried the cross and started killing people while not differentiating between a man or woman or child, and fighter or hostage. Judaism is not a religion of terrorism because a group of its followers erroneously used the commandments of Moses for occupying lands where millions of the poor Palestinian people — who have rights — fell victim. Even more, the European civilization is not a civilization of terrorism due to the two world wars that broke out in the heart of Europe and left more than 70 million dead. The American civilization is not a civilization of terrorism due to devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
The Al-Azhar University in Cairo is the oldest Islamic university. It has a national network of schools with around 2 million students.
Pope Francis’ message emphasized the need for followers of religions to see their worldview differences not as a source of conflict but as a source of peace and cooperation. “The duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, because true dialogue cannot be built on ambiguity or a willingness to sacrifice some good for the sake of pleasing others, ” he said. “The courage to accept differences, because those who are different, either culturally or religiously, should not be seen or treated as enemies, but rather welcomed as fellow-travellers, in the genuine conviction that the good of each resides in the good of all. Sincerity of intentions, because dialogue, as an authentic expression of our humanity, is not a strategy for achieving specific goals, but rather a path to truth, one that deserves to be undertaken patiently, in order to transform competition into cooperation.”
Pope Francis also pointed out the connection between the exploitation of the poor and extremism. “In order to prevent conflicts and build peace,” he avers, “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.”
The Pope also called for a radical transformation in terms of exposing and preventing the global military-industrial corporations from perpetuating and escalating conflicts around the world because of their greed for wealth and power. “Even more radically, an end must be put to the proliferation of arms; if they are produced and sold, sooner or later they will be used. Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented. National leaders, institutions and the media are obliged to undertake this urgent and grave task. So too are all of us who play a leading role in culture; each in his or her own area, we are charged by God, by history and by the future to initiate processes of peace, seeking to lay a solid basis for agreements between peoples and states.”
It was an existential moment listening to Pope Francis while sitting on my assigned seat at the fourth row in front of his podium at the Al-Azhar Conference Center.
During my informal conversations with some of the Islamic scholars present, particularly Bashir A. Ansari (Director of Dialogue and Outreach Department, Organization of Islamic Cooperation), I was made aware of the two important documents influencing this conference: the Al-Azhar Declaration, and the Marrakesh Declaration.
I left the conference enriched with glimpses of knowledge and wisdom from various spiritual and religious segments of God’s humanity. For these experiences, I’m grateful to God.