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General secretary's address at Al Azhar University, 26 April 2017

Address by World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, at Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, 26 April 2017.

26 April 2017

This speech is also available in Arabic (pdf, 112 KB)

Your Eminence Prof. Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the President of the Muslim Council of Elders,

Your Eminences, your excellences,

Dear distinguished companions,

Dear sisters and brothers,

 

It is a real pleasure and honour to visit you here in Cairo. Last year we met at the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland.

Thank you for this opportunity to meet and share more from the point of view of the World Council of Churches, representing 348 churches in 110 countries and more than half a billion believers.

Like yourself, and like the great institution of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif which you represent and the Council of Muslim Elders of which you are president, the World Council of Churches considers peace-building to be an essential part of the vocation of religious leaders and religious institutions. Indeed the overarching image and theme within which we are currently seeking to carry out our work and mission is that of a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. We are using such language for several reasons. First because the importance of pilgrimage is recognized in many religions, and certainly in both Christianity and Islam we know that what we learn about ourselves and our world through being on pilgrimage can bring us closer to God. But we also use the language of pilgrimage because of its sense of openness and invitation and movement: we can invite all people of good will to journey with us to work together for justice and peace in the difficult places of our world.

When we speak about pilgrimage, we are of course also talking about something that brings together what we call the religious leaders and the grassroots. All, great and small, have a vital role to play in this common journey, and it is part of the nature of pilgrimage that each of us depends on the help of the other. We, meeting here today, would all be seen by the world at large as religious leaders – and we all do have vital roles to play – roles that sometimes can make us unpopular in the societies in which we live, as we challenge some of the destructive forces that seem to be present today. But it is also vital that we are not viewed as aloof and alien from the pressing concerns of the grassroots in our respective societies, from the people who do not have the privileges that many of us enjoy.

Numbers are not what we should discuss today but I think we should be aware that Christians and Muslims together represent about half of the world’s population. So as we are here, we are not talking about only ourselves. We are talking about humanity in many ways. That is the first point I would like to make: We should address these questions from a basic theological perspective. What does it mean to believe today in one God that created the one humanity? And what are the implications of that in our time? Well, it definitely should not be that believing in one God, we see only part of humanity as our sisters and brothers for whom we care and offer the same rights as ourselves.

Because we are accountable to God we have to see how that leads to an accountability to every human being. This is our mutual accountability to one another, to every human being, whatever belief or non-belief we have. I think this is a very important reflection, working jointly toward equal citizenship. It is not only a political or a legal principle; it is also a principle that expresses our deepest faith in one God creating the one humanity.

We see today in many ways that this is not an obviously shared faith, not even in our Christian communities. Our Christian faith is also used to polarize the world, to polarize among people, and even to discriminate, again and again, even within the Christian community. We as the World Council of Churches have had since 1971 an interfaith office, and this has developed to become an important dimension of our work for unity, justice and peace.

When we call our churches and all who want to join us for the pilgrimage of justice and peace we want to express what we believe is a common agenda also for today.

Let me share with you some concrete examples from our own work of today that illustrate how we try to address this in a practical way. Inspired by our conversation last year in Geneva, I raised the perspective of “citizenship” in the light of our theological reflections in a side event to the United Nations Human Rights Council a month ago, where we were together to discuss exactly Muslim and Christian coexistence. I also have condemned the ongoing militarization of this region, and also the new links to religion in this respect.

This leads to my second point. In January I led church leaders from different parts of the world to Iraq to visit both the Christian leadership and the leadership of other faiths, particularly of the Muslim faith, as well as the political leadership, both in Bagdad and Erbil. We were analyzing many dimensions of the effects of the tragedies in this country, some of them coming not only from the last years of violence and extreme violence but also the war that started in 2003. That war was started against a unified Christianity protesting against the idea at all of using invasion as a way to solve a national political problem. And we announced then a prophecy that unfortunately would seem fulfilled. One of the first effects of that invasion was that the Christian communities would become victims. Today we have almost only one tenth of the numbers of Christians that were there 30 years ago in Iraq. Even more so, it is important for us to visit them and be part of their life. Both from their side and also from others we talked to, we were given many examples of why there is such an opportunity now to find a way to rebuild Iraq as a country of people of many faiths. And the international community must take this opportunity, after the liberation of Mosul and other cities, to now really start building this community with security.

We learned that there is a need to pay attention to what is taught in schools about one another. When we asked about the curriculum in Iraq, many textbooks didn’t really mention the others and their history in the land. There was not an awareness taught in these textbooks about the Christian presence going centuries and centuries back. This is of course a first, basic step, to analyze but also to accept the citizenship of others, that they exist, not only as minorities but as someone who belongs there. “Minorities” can be a dubious word because there can also be a sense from that word that you don’t really belong. It is not only an issue of numbers - so we must be careful we don’t use that word all the time, but that we also say “communities” - those who belong here.

A third example I’d like to mention is not from that part of the world but from Nigeria. Together with Muslim representatives led by Prince Ghazi and myself and other Christian leaders we recently visited Nigeria and particularly the northern part, to listen to the victims of the violence done in the name of religion in that part of the world. One of the outcomes of the visit was that we initiated a joint institute in Kaduna – that has been a hot spot of religiously-based violence in Nigeria. What is unique about this centre is that is it jointly shared and managed by both Muslims and Christians, on an exactly 50/50 basis and that both international groups and local organisations are committed to its support and development. We are glad to have Rev. Wushishi with us in our delegation, who has played a vital role in its development. In this centre, people should come together as Muslims and Christians to listen to the same stories, to help the victims and to institute new projects particularly among young people about living together. When we launched this centre last year the governor of Kaduna State said that this is one of the signs of hope in our country, and let it be the day we leave behind us the rhetoric that we always identify our religious affiliation first. People should be saying we are from Kaduna and Nigeria, before we say “I am a Muslim” or “I am a Christian”. This was the time to be the human beings or citizens in the city and the country before starting to identify oneself by belonging to the religious communities. I think that is a word for all of us. As the World Council of Churches we continue to work proactively to support this centre, indeed several of us here visited the centre again just over a month ago. I know that one of the aspirations of the dialogue that we are having with you, as the Muslim Council of Elders, is that we might find practical projects to work together to express our determination to make a difference in our world. I would be grateful, Dr al-Tayyeb, if the Muslim Council of Elders was willing to think of collaborating with us on this important piece of work. To have an organisation of the standing and influence of the Muslim Council of Elders joining with us to support the work of this centre will be hugely valuable.

Let me end by saying these are not questions that we face only in the parts of the world I have mentioned so far. In my own country, Norway, and in other parts of Europe today, we see that the citizenship that we have as a basis in most of these countries for legal rights is challenged from a popular position based on fear and exclusion: “The others do not belong here.” It is a matter of how we understand one another as human beings and the human rights we claim as a basis for our belonging as citizens in a state.

Our sense of the “one humanity” must also be expressed to refugees. They are human beings of another country which they have had to flee to survive. We are very ashamed that some countries actually discriminate among refugees based on religion, saying that they are not welcome because they are a Muslim. We are very ashamed and we hope that this will not be what we will see in many parts of Europe or other parts of the world, whether it is in the name of our religion or in the name of other religions.

The world is changing in many ways, and the role of religion as well. The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, which is the central thrust of the World Council of Churches' work and vision at the present time, is a pilgrimage that we believe Christians can invite all people of good will to share in. We have different voices and experiences in our midst of the WCC. This is a source of blessings we gladly share with others.

We thank God for the opportunity we have to share with one another and give a sign of hope together that there is a future of living together in diversity, in this country, in the region, in the world.

We are praying for “the tender mercy of our God, that the dawn from on high will break upon us” (Luke 1:78)