Eminences, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
My warm greetings to all of you. It is an honour and privilege for me to participate in this important meeting. In particular, I would like to congratulate the organizers on their choice of venue. The cities in which we meet today are a powerful reminder of what the people of the world expect from their leaders: cooperation, unity and solidarity in the face of and respect and recognition of our differences.
We meet today in the shadow of many different violent conflicts and challenges.
Several years ago, Prof. Riccardi wisely observed that when we witness violent conflict, we witness “our neighbor’s house on fire”. Homes are burning in Africa, in the Arab region, in Asia.
Some of these violent conflicts are of course military. But there are other challenges, such as economic deprivation, displacement, marginalization, and hate speech and incitement to violence, to name only a few. In some cases these challenges are the result of military conflict. In others they are the cause of it.
For us, here today, then, there are two important questions which need to be addressed:
- What is the role of religion in these violent conflicts, both in how they start, and how they can be ended?
- What are some ways in which we can, together, move away from violent conflict on paths to peace?
In short, how can religion and religious leaders help us to overcome the challenge of living together?
It has become very common to accuse religions of being causes of violence. This is neither helpful nor constructive. When we look at events around the world, and in world history, we can quite quickly see that it is the manipulation of religion for political ends that leads to violent conflicts. It is the human desire for power, for control. It is the need for security and the acknowledgement of our diverse identities. Five billion people in the world have a religious identity. Religion is a very powerful part of our self, of our identity, and when we feel this part of our identity attacked, many feel threatened and a fewreact in extreme ways. These factors make religion extremely vulnerable to manipulation by those seeking to cause violence for political or economic ends, or to justify their crimes. Claiming that it is the mere existence of religion, and not the manipulation of it, that causes conflict, only plays into their hands.
For example, together with partners, we carried out a study in Nigeria about the reasons people join Boko Haram. And contrary to the popular expectation, the majority of the interviewees said they were NOT radicalized in houses of worship. They were radicalized through social networks, families, friends.
Which brings me to the second question, the most important one we are gathered here to address. What can be done? The manipulation of religion, or the misrepresentation of religion, is creating a cycle of mistrust which needs to be broken. And that is something that needs to be done by religious leaders, their constituencies, and by leaders in religious communities. We need to create more and more examples of interreligious dialogue in action, of mutual respect and social cohesion. These experiences will repel the messages of those who seek to hide the true face of religion. This is of course already being done by religious leaders around the world. Many of the people in this room today are living examples and ambassadors of interreligious dialogue. I am humbled always by the dedication to dialogue in the religious leaders I meet through the work of KAICIID. Since we were founded in 2012, we have encountered and created many examples of interreligious dialogue in action. The Vienna Declaration that KAICIID supported in 2014, or the Athens Declaration of 2015 are examples of religious leaders uniting to say with one voice that violence in the name of any religion is violence AGAINST all religions. They endorsed a charter for Muslims, Christians and others to live together. All our activities in this region of the world are conducted under the banner of common citizenship and based on equality in rights and responsibilities.
In Myanmar, one of the advocates and trainers we support is a prominent Buddhist monk. He publicly supported a preaching ban for a Buddhist monk who was practicing hate speech against Muslims. A necessary and brave initiative, born from a belief in the value of coexistence among Muslims and Buddhists.
All around the world there are examples of interreligious dialogue in action. In education, on social media, peacebuilding and other fields.
The work of Sant’Egidio itself is a shining reminder and example of the power of interreligious cooperation and respect, quietly undertaken for the good of all mankind.
In the Arab region, KAICIID is convening the first network of theological and Sharia faculties, whose members are working on developing a shared curriculum on interreligious dialogue. Our hope is that the next generation of scholars and leaders in the Arab region will be equipped with the knowledge of dialogue that they need to build peace,and be more active in endorsing common citizenship for all components of Arab societies.
In Nigeria, we are proud to support the efforts of Cardinal Onaiyekan and Sultan Sa'ad Abubakar (who are here with us today), to strengthen social cohesion in the country, through a platform where people of all religions can cooperate for the benefit of the country.
Interreligious dialogue, I believe, is one of the most significant paths to peace we have today. Dialogue is a universally effective antidote against extremism, prejudice, indifference and exclusion, if we can educate our children, future leaders and institutions to use it.
Dialogue requires no equipment, no mobilization, no infrastructural investment. Dialogue can effect change through its use by people with open minds, courage and persistence,
Of course skills are needed that can be learned through training
The most immediate humanitarian challenge we have known in this century is an enormous displacement on a scale not seen since the last global war. Dialogue helps people to develop deeper understanding of the principle that solutions to great challenges cannot be found by closing seas, building walls, or sending people back into the arms of those they fled.
We live in increasingly complex times. We cannot stop with interreligious dialogue and cooperation alone. Therefore I would like to use the remaining time I have with you, to advocate for another path to peace, which is sustained cooperation between religious leaders and policymakers.
The organization I represent, the KAICIID Dialogue Centre, is specifically designed to help further this path. As you may already know, we are the only international organization to be governed both by States and by religious leaders. We were founded, following a historic meeting between His Holiness Pope Benedict and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Both those great leaders are leaders both of States and of religious communities. This unique structure is an answer to a special need. The need for constructive, equal cooperation between religious communities and governments.
In the past few years, the need for this cooperation is more evident to all of us. When we work in isolation from each other, we can only see and solve part of the problem.
There have been some strides in this direction. For example, here in Germany, we partner with the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD), which seeks to harness the positive power of religion in development.
We also launched in July, with the United Nations, the first action plan specifically designed for religious leaders seeking to prevent hate speech and incitement to violence. Hate speech and incitement are a major obstacle to the development of a culture of living together. We must be vigilant in preventing hate speech and incitement.
But more needs to be done to ensure that we are all, religious leaders and policymakers, working towards the same goals. That our strengths are being used effectively, and we are avoiding duplication in our efforts. It is only when we work together that we can defeat terrorism, poverty, and hate. I invite us all to consider concrete avenues for cooperation, for instance, a meeting among policymakers and religious leaders on the role of religion in countering the ongoing challenge of integrating refugees and immigrants into European societies.
In February 2018 we will convene a meeting in Vienna to review our progress in supporting dialogue to preserve diversity in the Arab region. We are working intensively to launch a platform for cooperation among religious leaders and policymakers in the region. The purpose of the platform is to create a space where religious leaders, the international community, and national and regional governments can dialogue on sustainable solutions on the path to peace in the Arab region.
Allow me to conclude by seeking your support in this endeavor. It is and should be an ambitious and optimistic endeavor. I hope in the years to come that we will continue to see many more bridges built between religious leaders and policymakers, the international community and civil society organizations. I wish you all the very best in your work, and thank the organizers once more, for your commitment to peace and dialogue.