Post Vatican and Al-Azhar Symposium, what is the role of the faithful in interreligious dialogue?

Posted on Mar 16, 2017


Saher Kawas | Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem

VATICAN/CAIRO – Since their rapprochement in May 2016, the Vatican and Al-Azhar saw their first interreligious symposium last February, after several years of restrained relations. In the meanwhile and awaiting fruitful results, the faithful search for their role and place in interreligious dialogue.

On February 22- 23, 2017, a symposium entitled “The role of Al-Azhar Al- Sharif and of the Vatican in confronting the phenomena of fanaticism, extremism and violence in the name of religion” took place at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

As an influential Islamic institution, Al-Azhar oversees a national network of schools, where a secular and religious curriculum is taught to two million students, and runs the Islamic Research Complex, which is in charge of issuing edicts that pertain to the public interest.

Timing of the symposium

The two-day meeting between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Al-Azhar Centre for Dialogue in Cairo took place on the eve of February 24th, in commemoration of St. John Paul II’s visit to Egypt and Al-Azhar on that date in 2000.

Several months later in September, 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke of the warm recollection of his meeting with then Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi. With reference to violence in the name of religion, he said: “each act of violence makes it more urgent for Muslims and Christians everywhere to recognize the things we have in common, and to agree once and for all that recourse to violence in the name of religion is completely unacceptable”.

Interreligious dialogue and ordinary people

Since the issuing of the Nostra Aetate declaration by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and the formation of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (formerly known as Secretariat for Non-Christians), the Catholic Church has been seeking to promote commonalities and fellowship with non-Christian religions.

Interreligious dialogue has become a vital medium, where religious leaders work together toward finding solutions for critical global issues. Nevertheless, the investment and participation of the faithful of different religions in this dialogue was sometimes overlooked.

“The only dialogue in life lies in the daily interactions between the Christian and Muslim faithful, be it at work, at school or on the street,” said Fr. Peter Madros, a Latin Patriarchate priest.

The dialogue of life is one of four forms of dialogue defined by the Pontifical Council of Interreligious Dialogue, where people share the good and bad times of their lives.

Another form of interreligious dialogue is that of religious experience. Fr. Madros points out that the great advantage that Arab Christians have is their command of the Arabic language and knowledge of cultures of their countries. “Christians who speak Arabic have an advantage over Christians who don’t. Interreligious dialogue not only requires deep understanding of one’s religion, but the studying of other religions as well”, he said. “The only way to understand the mentality of a Muslim, is to read and study the Quran”.

The media in the interreligious dialogue context

In this day and age, one should take into account the mobilizing effect of social media platforms among people, which can lead to life changing events. As much as they can put out the good news and engage in honest reporting, they can also fuel tension, vilify communities and “glamourize evil”.

As Pope Francis pointed out in his message of World Communications day, people working in communications have the duty to “engage in constructive forms of communication that reject prejudice towards others and foster a culture of encounter, helping all of us to view the world around us with realism and trust”.

Religious institutions have also to work on organizing local seminars, with the purpose of unmasking the deformed reality and images that some media outlets are presenting to people, in hopes of opening dialogue channels between individuals of different faiths, where they can be driven by constructive analysis of current issues and not by religious sentiments.

The Role of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif and Vatican in Confronting the Phenomena of Fanaticism, Extremism and Violence

In the framework of the joint cooperation between Al-Azhar Center for Dialogue and the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, the two Councils held a symposium at Al-Azhar Al-Sharif in Cairo in the period between 22th and 23th of February 2107 titled: “The Role of Al-Azhar Al- Sharif and of the Vatican in Confronting the Phenomena of Fanaticism, Extremism and Violence”.

Representatives of Al-Azhar Center for Dialogue and the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue have participated in the symposium. The symposium was started by a speech of Professor Abbas Shauman, Deputy Al-Azhar, and Professor Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk, Head of Al-Azhar Center for Dialogue and a member of the Authority of Senior Scholars. Also, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tuaran delivered a speech.

The speeches of the symposium were delivered over two days. Participants presented six research papers in Arabic and English on the following points:

  • Fanaticism, causes and ways to counter it
  • Extremism, causes and ways to counter it
  • Violence, causes and ways to counter it

The symposium has been concluded with the following recommendations:

1. The symposium recommends the significance of the dialogue between Al-Azhar Al-Sharif and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and activating the common human values to counter fanaticism, extremism and violence.

2. The symposium recommends the importance of respecting the religious diversity.

3. The symposium stresses the necessity of addressing causes of the phenomena of extremism, violence, poverty, ignorance, and the political abuse of religion and incorrect understanding of religious texts.

4. The symposium recommends the necessity of paying attention to the issues that concern young people, opening dialogue channels, explaining correct concepts ordained by religions, training and developing them.

5. The symposium reaffirms paying attention to schools curricula that establish the common human values, taking into consideration the issues of women, family, youth and children.

6. The symposium stresses the values of mercy, love and other moral values to counter extremism, violence and intolerance