Oslo, Norway, 22 November 2021
I am delighted to participate today in this historic event, on behalf of the World Council of Churches, which represents 580 million Christians from 120 countries. Our thanks to Mr. Aamir J. Sheik, president of the 14 August Committee, H.E. Kjell Magne Bondevik , Executive chair of the Oslo Center, and Ms. Kjersti Fløgstad of the Nobel Peace Center for this Brobyggerprisen.”
I also welcome this opportunity to share experiences with my co-recipients, Rabbi Melchior and Dr Al-issa.
In my very short remarks, I will indicate the WCC’s approach to interreligious peacemaking by briefly describing the evolution of our programme and some of its most recent initiatives.
The interreligious imperative
It was 50 years ago, in 1971, that the WCC formally initiated its work in interreligious dialogue and cooperation by creating an office to oversee its efforts in this field. Since then, this has been a steady and growing priority for us, making it a transversal dimension across all our programmatic areas. We are aware that almost all the world’s steepest challenges have an interreligious dimension. Whether we are addressing international affairs, the environment, global economic justice, the rights of women and children, racism, the needs of refugees, and not least the task of theological education within our churches, in all these and other aspects of our work we seek to keep today’s interreligious realities in mind.
Wherever possible, we also seek to cooperate with our partners from other religious communities as well as with our many Christians partners, deepening the interreligious cooperation for the good of the wider world. Among others, I will mention the most recent published document elaborated together with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican on Serving a Wounded World in Interreligious Solidarity: A Christian Call to Reflection and Action during COVID-19 and Beyond and a statement issued together with the World Jewish Congress, calling on religious leaders to engage with the ethical issues related to global vaccine distribution.
Dialogue is for peace
In the time that I have been serving as Acting General Secretary, I have been moved by the warmth and frankness of our relationships with both our Jewish and Muslim partners, and I have been encouraged by our capacity to work together to address contemporary challenges.
After a long pause, the relationship with the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) has recently resumed in 2019. I am deeply impressed with the frankness of discussions and the desire to remain together around the table of dialogue, despite the many difficult issues and challenges. At times, our partners are not happy with the stances we adopt in solidarity with our member churches in the Middle East. But we talk, often, and we strive to understand each other’s perspectives and to avoid all unnecessary misunderstandings and provocations. While we remain committed to advocacy for the rights and respect of the human dignity of the Palestinians, the call to respect international law and end occupation, we also repeatedly state our fundamental opposition to antisemitism and call on all our member churches to condemn it. We continue to fully affirm the recognition of and deep respect for the state of Israel and compassion for the sufferings of Israeli people who are equally victims of the ongoing conflict. Our wish is to increase our cooperation with our Jewish partners so that together we build strong bridges to ensure justice and peace for all.
From our long experience in the WCC, we know that Christian-Muslim relations is a complex and multi-faceted reality, taking a great range of forms in many different parts of the world. There are many challenges and many opportunities in this great global encounter, and so we also need a corresponding range of ways of developing dialogue and building cooperative relationships between Muslims and Christians. Let me mention just few examples of our work in this field.
1. Last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our dialogue with the Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Tehran, It has been important to maintain this channel of communication with representatives of the Shi’a tradition in Islam. It has also provided an opportunity to raise occasional concerns about the small Christian communities in Iran. In March next year, I have committed to pay a visit to Iran, to strengthen our relationships and to deliver a lecture to an important international event.
2. A quite different example of our work with Muslim partners is in northern Nigeria. A joint visit to the region in 2012 by the WCC’s then-general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, now Presiding Bishop of the Church of Norway, and HRH Prince Ghazi of Jordan led to the founding a few years later of the International Centre for Interreligious Peace and Harmony in Kaduna. The very existence of this centre is a sign of hope amid divisions and violence, and in the few years since its foundation it has already developed a range of activities related to the challenges of reconciliation and peace-building locally. We are most grateful for the generous support provided by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for these vital initiatives.
3. I would like to mention the six-week Interreligious Summer School at the World Council of Churches’ Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland. I initiated the first course in 2006. The studies are accredited by the University of Geneva. This is a wonderful opportunity for about 20 young Jewish, Muslim and Christian students from all over the world to live and study together in a safe atmosphere of conviviality and mutual respect. The aim is to discover how religious communities can find constructive solutions to the challenges of our time and to equip our participants to become bridge builders and ambassadors for just peace.
Finally, I am proud to represent the WCC in the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, which is an independent international committee instituted to promote human values of fraternity in communities around the world and to fulfill the aspirations of the Document on Human Fraternity, which was co-signed by His Eminence, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Professor Ahmed Al-Tayeb and His Holiness Pope Francis, in 2019.
The heart and soul of interreligious peacemaking
In our globalized situation, our work in interreligious dialogue, cooperation and peacemaking holds the prospect of a genuine fraternity among religious communities to address conflicts but also to prevent them, to make and keep peace but also to root it in the hearts of people.
Nonetheless, the challenges posed by interreligious encounter also push us to address many tough questions. We cannot pretend that the path of interreligious dialogue, cooperation and peacemaking is an easy one. But this is where God calls us to go, trusting in God’s accompaniment of us, and in God’s good purposes for the whole of creation.
May our interreligious bridge building unite us in work for peace, engender reconciliation among divided communities, and bring us ever closer to the divine love that creates and sustains all life, calling us to participate in the work of mending this beautiful but broken world.