Statement by H.E. Archbishop Bernardito Auza
Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See
At the Side Event entitled
“The New York Interfaith Dialogue:
Building Social Cohesion and Inclusive Communities”
United Nations, New York, 5 February 2019
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Panelists, Dear Friends,
I am grateful and happy to be present this afternoon for this conversation on the critical role played by men and women inspired by faith and by faith-based organizations in promoting peace and integral development through enhancing mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation. It is a fitting way for us to mark the eighth observance of UN Interfaith Harmony Week, dedicated to highlighting the importance of dialogue among different faiths and religions to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among peoples. I thank the Permanent Mission of Ecuador, UNITAR, and all of the co-sponsors of today’s event for their kind invitation to participate.
Today Pope Francis left Abu Dhabi on the last day of a three-day interreligious encounter hosted by the United Arab Emirates. He’s the first Pope to set foot in the Arabian Peninsula. Yesterday, together with one of the most influential figures in Sunni Islam, the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the Pope signed a joint declaration on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. In it the Pope and the Grand Imam sought to enunciate their good and heartfelt common aspirations in order to guide those who believe in God and who believe in the importance of human fraternity to collaborate to bring about a culture of mutual respect and brotherhood. They spoke about how authentic religious teachings help to lead us to peace, mutual understanding, and harmonious co-existence; to remain free from a materialistic worldview that sets our hearts on things rather than on persons; to foster true freedom beginning from the freedom of “belief, thought, expression and action”; to seek justice based on mercy; to promote dialogue and a culture of tolerance; to protect places of worship; to combat the evil of terrorism; to advocate and ensure full citizenship and equality among citizens; to provide access to education and employment, especially for women; to appreciate and defend the great good of the family; and to protect children, the elderly, weak, disabled and oppressed. They said they hoped that their joint declaration would be conveyed to the political, religious, educational and civil society leaders across the world. Today I have brought copies of the Pope’s and Grand Imam’s document for everyone here, because it not only is very much in line with our topic today but is also one of the fruits that Interfaith Harmony Week in general seeks to produce.
At the signing ceremony for the Document yesterday, Pope Francis also gave an extended address on the importance of leaders and people of different faiths to work together to promote a culture of fraternity for peace and full human flourishing. He has long insisted that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world” and is essential for ensuring “true human progress” (Evangelii Gaudium 250). Yesterday, using the Biblical image of Noah’s Ark that rescued humanity from destruction in a primordial flood, he said that to “safeguard peace, [we] need to enter together as one family into an ark [of fraternity] that can sail the stormy seas of the world,” implying that without such fraternity we would drown separately. We cannot honor the Creator without reverencing his creation, he said. To look at God as a common source of life or father means necessarily to regard each other as brothers and sisters in the common home he has provided. We glorify God, he added, by honoring and cherishing the sacredness of every person, and we profane God’s name whenever we use it to justify fraternal violence or an individualism that affirms oneself at the expense of others. This is why, he says, true religious piety always involves loving both God and neighbor, rather than succumbing to the perennial temptation to divide people into siblings and sibling rivalries.
To build social cohesion and inclusive communities, the Pope implied, we must first to nourish this authentic fraternity, so that inclusion prevails over exclusion. Religious people, people of faith as well as faith-based organizations are, and must be, he said, important channels of brotherhood over the barriers of separation. This involves, he said, a daily and effective dialogue, one not merely of words, but of existence. Pope Francis likes to talk about interfaith dialogue as a journey together, a caminar juntos in Spanish, in which people of different religions and cultures, neighborhoods and nations, begin to walk together, recognizing how much humanity they have in common, how much beauty and goodness exists in each other, and how much wisdom is imbued in the way the other approaches the most important questions of human life. This caminar juntos is a dialogue of life, sharing joys and sorrows. It’s a walk of friendship and fraternity.
To dialogue effectively involves, he says, not just a firm sense of one’s own identity, but also what he called yesterday the “courage of otherness,” appreciating and defending the other’s fundamental humanity, rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. Without this sincere courage of otherness, Pope Francis said, there can be no real dialogue, no firm bridges between peoples and cultures, no genuine ark of fraternity, but just pretentious and hollow words. That’s why he said that next to the ancient Socratic maxim, “Know yourself,” we must place the equally important one, “Know your brother or sister.” We must get to know their history, culture, intimate convictions, sincere desire to know God and serve others. So many difficulties flow, after all, from false or caricatured understandings of what others believe, based on heuristic interpretations of the objectionable words or deeds of an unrepresentative few. Genuine dialogue presupposes that each side wishes to know each other and desires to increase and deepen its mutual knowledge so that they may walk more firmly together, sharing the spiritual patrimony that they have in common and seeking to enrich each other by investing that common treasure.
Such sincere dialogue requires a deep sense of fraternal justice, especially toward those who are marginalized and excluded. In the midst of a utilitarian individualism that can tempt us to be indifferent to others, and to view development through selfish lenses that translates practically into a “win-lose” survival of the fittest rather than a “win-win,” a culture of authentic fraternity, fostered by genuine interfaith harmony, can help us keep development integral and cohesive, which is the only way it will be genuinely sustainable and expansive. Likewise an authentic fraternity based on genuine religious principles will help bring about what Pope Francis termed yesterday the “demilitarizing [of] the human heart,” without which lasting peace cannot be achieved.
There are several positive consequences of this type of authentic, sincere, existential interfaith dialogue for social cohesion and inclusive societies.
First, it shows all of society how to converse about the most important and profound matters and work respectfully through what may divide. In an age of so much polarization and social fragmentation, religious believers have a special responsibility to model the type of civil and political dialogue necessary to form, reform, and strengthen the types of institutions and societies necessary for sustainable development. Cohesive societies are not going to be brought about through merely keeping opposing factions apart or just through reciprocal tolerance. They require a deep fraternal respect that leads to the persevering work to help people encounter each other not at a superficial level, not just as a group of competing subjects who happen to live simultaneously side by side, but at the depth of their personality and humanity. They require genuine solidarity, something that interfaith dialogue catalyzes.
Second, genuinely walking together leads to working together in projects that not only to strengthen their mutual bonds, but also serve society in joint interfaith activities. Religious believers have long been at the forefront of implementing an agenda of advancement for their needy neighbors at micro- and macro-scales, helping to lift the poor out of privation, feed the hungry, build hospitals, found educational institutions for orphans, girls and boys, care for our common home, foster moral markets and work environments, welcome strangers, reconcile warring factions and battle injustice, and advocate in manifold ways for the rights of those so often left behind. All of these activities are at the core of peacebuilding and development and interfaith collaboration multiplies and scales them to be even more effective.
Third, interfaith harmony and collaboration gives a common witness in an increasingly secularized society of the importance and beauty of a life of faith and the help that the light of ethical principles illumined by faith can bring to public debates about the common good, freedom, human dignity and rights and more. In a world in which some try to ostracize God from public spaces, the collaboration of religious believers helps to ensure God’s name is not forgotten and that the love of God especially toward those most in need never grows cold in human hearts.
Fourth, it makes possible a concerted testimony against religiously-motivated violence and provides a means to clean the swamps in which such extremism breeds. Interfaith dialogue creates a situation in which people become increasingly convinced that God’s name must be reverenced as one associated with peace and impelling those who invoke God’s name to work for peace. Violence in God’s name is blasphemy in body language. Interreligious dialogue is an opportunity not only to overcome the lack of mutual understanding that can lead one to treat others as enemies rather than brothers, but can help ensure that the religious values that are passed on from generation to generation are those that promote harmony rather than hostility and hatred.
Fifth and most profoundly, interfaith dialogue magnifies the witness of individual religions about the importance of the transcendent dimension of human life. Pope Francis, in Myanmar, said that “the great challenge of our day is to help people be open to the transcendent,” which is at the root of their ability to see their interconnectedness and transcend the temptation toward misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred. In Baku, Azerbaijan, the Pope said, “Religions have an enormous task: to accompany men and women looking for the meaning of life. … Religions are called to help us understand that the center of each person is outside of himself, that we are oriented towards the Most High and towards the other who is our neighbor. … Humanity therefore needs religion if it is to reach its goal. Religion is a compass that orients us to the good and steers us away from evil, which is always crouching at the door of a person’s heart. Religions, therefore, … help bring out the best in each person. … For all these reasons, especially today, religion is not a problem but a part of the solution: against the temptation to settle into a banal and uninspired life, where everything begins and ends here below, religion reminds us of the need to lift our hearts to the Most High in order to learn how to build the city of man.”
For all of these reasons, I am very happy to participate in today’s conversation and hope that it proves to be a step in the direction of the cohesive and inclusive communities that will lead us to enter together the ark of fraternity that will foster true development and peace.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.