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General secretary's address at Al Azhar University, 27 April 2017

Address by World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, at Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, 27 April 2017.

27 April 2017

This speech is also available in French, German, Spanish and Arabic (pdf 111 KB)


Sheikh Al Azhar,

Your eminences, your excellences,


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:8). To make peace is holy work. 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.

We are, therefore, as representatives of the World Council of Churches present here, very grateful to the Sheikh Al Azhar and the Muslim Council of Elders for this opportunity to gather to affirm our common commitment to work for just peace in our world together.

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. 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.

We believe in one God that has created One humanity to live together with its diversity and differences. We are here to share our reflections and commitment to show together what we believe this means in practice.  Together we should call for the care of the life of everybody created by God. We are accountable to the Creator when we meet one another as God’s creation.

This is our personal responsibility, whoever we are and whatever position we have. 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.

We acknowledge that we all are vulnerable and that we all have equal needs for protection and for human rights. Authorities of states are responsible for providing the frameworks for this, so that we all are treated with equal rights and given the same responsibilities .

This corresponds in several ways to the concept of “citizenship”. The principle of citizenship is, therefore, in my view, a proper way to express in the realm of politics something that is also important in our faith in God. The principle of citizenship belongs to the realm of politics and legal systems, but can provide the rights and the protection we need whoever we are and whatever faith community we belong to. Different people should have the same basis and security for their lives and for their children’s lives, and for their grandchildren’s lives. In the framework of a state and in the international community of states, we need principles that care for justice and peace for all. We need to give equal protection to all against injustices and violence. We need something solid and clear as a common platform for our lives together.

In our discussions with Al Azhar during the last couple of days we have seen that exactly the basic concept of citizenship is on our common table. We were discussing what it means for people of different religions to live constructively together as common citizens of the same country. This is, as we say, a very ‘live’ issue in parts of the Middle East at the moment, and it is a concern where I respect the lead that the Sheikh Al Azhar is seeking to give. It is however also an issue that many nations in the so-called western world increasingly need to face, particularly in these days of widespread international migration. How can all citizens in every country both be respected for the particular and diverse contributions of religion or ethnicity they can offer to the rich fabric of the nation, as well as being fully integrated and enabled to live together with all as constructive citizens of the country? Such a challenge is one that cannot be ignored.

We should, furthermore, explore together how religion and the practices of our faith should contribute to life together in peace and harmony. We should demonstrate what it means to care for and protect one another. We should affirm one anther 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.

My friends, I think we have seen here in Egypt striking examples of what this means. We have heard of many examples that Muslims protect and defend Christians when they are victims of violence. We hear that Christians share their support of poor people or offer education to anybody, regardless their religion.

We need to find real expressions of how the love of God can be expressed in the love of one other. I am encouraged to learn from both Muslim and Christian leaders that we should explore further how this relationship with the divine love and our love can be expressed.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:7-8). God calls us to share this love with one another and with the world.

This quest for a concretization of what our faith in the love of One God means is not an abstract question or a soft wish in a hard reality of life. This is indeed an urgent and basic question in a time when different groups and leaders want to use religion as a means to divide, or polarize, or even legitimize conflict and war.

Violence in the name of religion cannot be done without violating the values of religion. Violence in the name of God towards those who are created in the image of God becomes violence against God. We are from the beginning to the end accountable to God.

We have to take another way, a pilgrimage way, searching for justice and peace together with all who are willing to be on this way together. This is the only way that can give us future of hope. This is the way of real dialogue.

I am also very glad that this conference has happened in such close proximity to the time of bilateral dialogue that we the World Council of Churches have been holding with the Muslim Council of Elders.  I want to use this opportunity to express how the WCC regards our developing relationship with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar and the Muslim Council of Elders as  important, and we look forward to working together in the future in practical ways to build peace in our world.

Being a World Council of Churches, a fellowship of 350 churches, representing 560 million members, we are based on an ongoing dialogue with one another. We are “seeing one another in the eye, to see what we have to say together” (the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras). We believe that as a fellowship of churches we have a call to be one, and we believe that we are called to show that being one also means promoting a just peace among the peoples, in the marketplaces, in the communities, with the creation.

As a Council of Churches we are in a responsible relationship to on another. We are accountable to what unites us in the basis for our Christian faith and life. This is the faith in  One God, the creator of the One humanity, whom we worship as the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This call to be one is a call to the fellowship we are created to be in the one human family, with all our gifts of diversity. We are called to embrace the gifts of the others, which we can share as we are in council with one another.

There are differences that we have, some theological, some sociological but perhaps stemming out of our different religious traditions. These differences are important to us, and also we suspect to our dialogue partners of other faiths. We do not want to deny them or pretend that they do not exist. But they do not, and must not stop us working together for peace.

This call to be one in diversity we experience in a profound way being a World Council of Churches, with a global reach. We have the privilege of having within our membership churches in all parts of the world, including of course here in the Middle East and North Africa.

We share the truth about the love of God and the will of God, as we also search for the truth about the reality in which we live in our different contexts. The reality of the grace of God that we share is mixed with the reality of sin. This calls us to participate in the human family in solidarity with one another, in humility and even with a critical and self-critical approach.

The WCC was established immediately after the World War II, this tragedy of humanity that became a disaster for nations and people, some of them suffering from some kind of Christian legitimization of their suffering, like the Jewish people. The churches realized in 1948 that they could also be part of oppression and contribute to conflict. It was time for repentance and reconciliation.

The same self-critical approach was necessary in the following years in the struggles following the de-colonization of many parts of the world. Again Christianity was linked to the tragic history of colonization and slavery, of racism and discrimination.

Today we again have to struggle against racism, exclusion of refugees, division and separation – still in the name of religion, even our Christian faith.

On the other side, by God’s grace, we have seen how being in dialogue and council with one another has called us to unity and to order, to repentance, to find other ways forward.

God has called us to Christian Solidarity in the Cross of Christ. Standing here in Cairo I am moved and humbled by the witness of the faithful Christians who belong to our four member churches in this country. We honour their fidelity at this time which seems to be especially difficult and dangerous. With the paradox that is at the heart of our Christian faith we bear witness to the fact that in their apparent vulnerability there is great spiritual strength. In their daily lives they are somehow reflecting the mystery of the cross which is central to our faith.

We want to work together and with all human beings and communities of faith for the greater good of our world. This vision of diversity in unity is also a gift that we want to bring to the wider table of interreligious cooperation, of men, women and children of many different religions working together for global peace with justice for all human beings, and indeed for the welfare of the earth itself.

Therefore, let me conclude:

As religious leaders, gathered today for peace, we have the duty of speaking with one voice, 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.

We agree as human beings that we are accountable to all human beings as to redressing the manner by which religions are portrayed and too often manipulated. We are responsible for our actions but even more responsible if we do not act or do not act properly and timely. While states bear the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting all rights for all, individually and collectively to enjoy a dignified life free from fear; we, as religious leaders do bear a distinct responsibility to stand up for our shared humanity and equal dignity of each human being. We should do it here together, and in our own spheres of preaching, teaching, spiritual guidance and social engagement.

We have a duty to speak in love and of love, to redress hate speech by remedial compassion and solidarity that heals hearts and societies alike. We as religious leaders must assume our respective roles, As believers and ordinary people of our faith communities we can make the real difference in the way we speak, in the way we teach or children, in the way we live together in the local communities and show what our faith means as expression of the love of God.

Together we make a difference. Together we can give hope. In love for the One Humanity. Let us do it together.


Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary

World Council of Churches