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Speech at “Islam and Christianity, the Great Convergence: Working jointly towards equal citizenship rights”, 15 March 2017

At the Geneva Centre on 15 March, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit joined a panel speaking on the theme “Islam and Christianity, the Great Convergence: Working jointly towards equal citizenship rights.”

16 March 2017

[Moderator Idriss Jazairy, executive director, Geneva Centre offers introduction.]

World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit:

Thank you moderator, dear excellencies, dear sisters and brothers in the one humanity, thank you for this opportunity to share from the point of view of the World Council of Churches, which is actually much more than 110 churches, it is 348 churches in 110 countries, representing more than half a billion believers.

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 at the World Council of Churches, we address these issues from many perspectives, but first of all we address it from a theological perspective. What does it mean to believe today in the 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.

There is an accountability to God that has to lead 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 about the theme of today, 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 the 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 three examples from our own work of today that illustrate how we try to address this in a practical way. One is built on experiences we had also with the Al-Azhar Mosque and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar here in Geneva some months ago as he visited us at the World Council of Churches together with several members of the Muslim Council of Elders. And we met our institute outside Geneva, our Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, which celebrated its 70th anniversary.  The Grand Imam represents an institute that has millions of students. We have fifty students. But we believe we have the same purpose, namely to be a place where we work together to understand one another, and what are one another’s shared faith and values. Also, in a wider sense, it was a significant sign that he wanted to come to visit one of our institutions for education, actually our most significant programme for education, as this is a very basic dimension of what citizenship means.

This leads to my second point. A month ago 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 release 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. 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.

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.

Response, Moderator Idriss Jazairy:

Thank you, Dr Tveit, for this inspiring statement, for your mentions that “minority” should really be a term that we should forget about in terms of a group that is fragile in a particular society, that is exposed to persecution. If we extend equal citizenship rights then the notion of “minority” should become obsolete. But this is a long way before we get to that stage, and I think it was particularly striking to have talked about people in misery who are discriminated, that some people’s misery is more subject to empathy - that is something that is unacceptable.