By Katsuhiro Asagiri
Manama (IDN) — “Our world today is facing unprecedented challenges where conflicts are multiplying, and people whose identities are defined by religion, culture, or ethnicity continue to be besieged by hatred. Social and cultural divides are deepening; tribalism, ethnic violence, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, hate speech and ultra-nationalism are in full swing.” said Miguel Angel Moratinos, the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). He was addressing the opening session of the first Bahrain Dialogue Forum on November 3.
Moratinos said: “A holistic approach is the way to respond to global challenges of this nature. Security measures will not suffice to stem up the scourge of terrorism, sectarianism, and racist rhetoric. We need to counter these false narratives with a true one that offers human solidarity and hope.” He added: “The document of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together (Abu Dhabi Declaration) whose manifesto speaks volumes of this forum, is a shining light at the end of the dark tunnel, a blueprint for interfaith dialogue not only among one or two faiths, but it encompasses all faiths.”
This document was co-signed on February 4, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, by His Holiness Pope Francis of Catholic Church and His Eminence Dr. Ahmed El-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, which is considered the most authoritative theological institution in Sunni Islam.
At the heart of the “Human Fraternity” document, which the friendship between Pope Francis and Dr El-Tayeb birthed into existence, is a condemnation of the instrumentalization of religion for violence or terrorism and a call to work together on practical matters, such as for the care of the environment.
A photo of the two men embracing cheek-to-cheek at the signing ceremony went in the world as an “icon of hope” and the document has been widely heralded as a major advancement in the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Muslim world. Furthermore, in December 2020, the United Nations General Assembly designated February 4, the date on which the Fraternity Document was signed, as “The International Day of Human Fraternity”, a day dedicated to raising awareness and recognizing the efforts of people to promote peace, harmony, and intercultural dialogue throughout the world.
The Kingdom of Bahrain, consisting of 33 islands in the Persian Gulf, is a multicultural and multireligious society where foreign workers account for half of the population. In addition to mosques, Christian churches, synagogues, and Hindu and Buddhist temples stand side by side in the country. Although the royal family in power is Sunni Muslim, approximately 70 per cent of the citizens of Bahrain are Shia.
Against this background, the Bahraini government has emphasized a policy of “coexistence, tolerance, and openness” and has taken the initiative in creating opportunities for dialogue among religions and cultures. The first Bahrain Dialogue Forum follows this trend and is the result of King Hamad’s official endorsement of the “Friendship of Mankind” document.
The two-day forum is within Bahrain’s keenness to build bridges of dialogue between leaders of religions, sects, thought, and culture, was organized by The Muslim Council of Elders, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence. The event was attended by about 200 prominent religious leaders and scholars from across the world including Pope Francis and Dr El Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar.
< The Bahrain Dialogue Forum was held at Isa Culture Center. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun
The Forum’s program consisted of sessions that addressed global coexistence and the promotion of fraternity, dialogue, and peaceful coexistence among humankind, and examined the role of religious leaders and scholars in addressing the challenges of the times.
Sheikh Khalid bin Muhammad Al Khalifa, Chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders, introduced the social background of Bahrain’s (meaning two oceans) tolerance of diverse civilizations as a crossroads of civilizations since ancient times and Bahrain’s practices toward peace and coexistence, including the Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration on religious tolerance. “In order to spread, maintain, and consolidate coexistence in communities, it is important to respect for religious and sectarian idiosyncrasies and to recognize freedom of religion”, said Al Khalifa.
Al Khalifa pointed out that “Bahrain has the highest ratio of mosques and places of worship to population and area in the world, with everyone practicing their religious rituals in active coexistence”. He noted, “Bahrain is a global model to follow in this area”.
His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople-News Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch stressed the importance of interreligious dialogue as the Orthodox Church’s response to the current situation of rampant religious fundamentalism saying that “Opposition to ecumenical or interreligious dialogue usually comes from fear and ignorance or intolerance of religious diversity. By contrast, authentic and sincere interreligious dialogue recognizes the differences among religious traditions and promotes peaceful coexistence and cooperation among peoples and cultures. This does not mean denying one’s own faith, but rather adapting and enriching one’s own identity and self-consciousness in the perspective of openness to others. It can also heal and dispel prejudice and contribute to mutual comprehension and peaceful conflict resolution”.
Former Niger President and Muslim Council of Elders Member, Mahamadou Issoufou, explained that what the world is going through today in terms of political, economic, and security conflicts and crises, in addition to the issues of poverty, hunger and climate, have put people under enormous pressure that requires cooperation, rapprochement, and convergence through interfaith dialogues to achieve peace and security.
Kazakhstan’s Bulat Sarsenbayev, chairman of the board of the Nazarbayev Center for the Development of Interfaith and Inter-Civilization Dialogue, explained the outcome document of the 7th Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which was held on September 14 and 15 in Astana with the participation of many participants of the Bahrain Dialogue Forum, including Pope Francis and Dr El-Tayeb.
He said that the congress will continue to be a permanent platform for interreligious dialogues and hopes to deepen cooperation with participants of this forum. The congress is an initiative launched by Kazakhstan in 2003 amid religious conflicts throughout the world after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Kazakhstan prides itself on having renounced nuclear weapons after independence from the experience of more than one million victims of nuclear tests conducted in Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in eastern Kazakhstan during the Soviet era, and on striving to realize a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society living in harmony. The 7th Congress adopted the “Human Fraternity” document as part of the outcome document.
In a session titled “The Modern Crisis: The Role of Religious Leaders and Academics in the Face of Climate Change and the Global Food Crisis,” Hirotsugu Terasaki, Vice President of Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist organization based in Japan, referred to the words of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda who discussed the relationship between environmental and food issues, etc. and Buddhist thought. Dr Ikeda stated that “Buddhism emphasizes the importance of compassion for everything, everyone (all things). Since man enjoy the blessing of interdependence with and support from all things, it is correct that man do all he can to return these blessings by caring for other creatures as kindly as possible”.
Mr Terasaki added that he is convinced that “our role as Buddhist believers is to expand the spirit of compassion in each of us, to take the initiative in dealing with problems, and to encourage the people around us to increase such initiative”.
Mr Terasaki said that Soka Gakkai makes it a point to impart the message of “hope” that reality can be changed, and it also focuses on young people who are working to make a difference. “The more difficult an issue is, the more vital it is to make efforts to gain the understanding and support of the general public. Without this, progress becomes very difficult”—and it is only “when each of us stands up and takes action that these problems can be addressed.”
He said furthermore: “It is increasingly important that we view these issues through the lens of the suffering these problems inflict on actual individuals. And it is equally important that we take every opportunity to share this perspective in society.”
At the closing ceremony of the forum held the following day at the square of Sahil Palace, Dr El-Tayeb, referring to the three fundamental Qur’anic principles (①that people have differences, ② that there is freedom of religion, and ③ that the only way to establish human relations is through acquaintance), said, “The Qur’anic rules governing human relations are enumerated logically with no room for reinterpretation or distortion. Natural differences necessitate freedom of belief, which in turn entails a peaceful relationship among peoples”.
“They should be adapted into modern academic programs for teaching and convincing young people that there is room in life in the eyes of religious philosophy for those of different faiths, races, colors and languages, and that cultural diversity enriches civilization and establishes the peace that is lacking.” said Dr El-Tayeb who called on religious scholars and thinkers to put more effort into the education of youth about such indisputable facts about religious commonalities.
He further said: “There should be a focus on commonalities and meeting points, with an understanding of differences. Let us together chase away any talk of hate, provocation and excommunication and set aside ancient and modern conflict in all its forms and with all its negative offshoots.” and made a groundbreaking call for Sunni-Shiite dialogue.
Pope Francis while noting that the country name “Bahrain” means “two seas”, said that East and West increasingly resemble two opposing seas. We, on the other hand, are here together because we all intend to set sail on the same waters, choosing the route of encounter rather than that of confrontation, the path of dialogue indicated by the title of this Forum: “East and West for Human Coexistence”.
The Forum also discussed the Role of religious leaders and scholars in addressing > contemporary challenges: climate change and the global food crisis. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun
Pope also pointed out that “catastrophic conflicts taking place in every part of the globe, and in the midst of accusations, threats and condemnations, we continue to find ourselves on the brink of a delicate precipice…while the majority of the world’s population is united in facing the same difficulties, suffering from grave food, ecological and pandemic crises, a few potentates are caught up in a resolute struggle for partisan interests. In the garden of humanity, instead of cultivating our surroundings, we are playing instead with fire, missiles and bombs, weapons that bring sorrow and death, covering our common home with ashes and hatred”.
He added that “We are here, as men and women who believe in God and in our brothers and sisters, to reject isolating thinking, the approach to reality that overlooks the great sea of humanity by concentrating only on its own narrow currents. We want the divergences between East and West to be settled for the good of all, without distracting attention from another divergence that is constantly and dramatically increasing: the gap between the North and the South of the world”.
The Pope further explained that “It is our duty to encourage and assist our human family, interdependent yet at the same time disconnected, to sail the sea together”. He cited “a spirit of prayer”, “education in the rights and duties of citizenship and brotherhood, including the protection of women and children”, and “actions that clearly reject war and violence and work for peace” as necessary to achieve this. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 November 2022]
Photo: Bahrain Dialogue Forum in session. Credit: Seikyo Shimbun.
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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 18 November 2022.
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