In Morocco, a few weeks after signing with the Grand Imam of Cairo the declaration on human fraternity, Francis told young people it was a big dream he had had with a friend. The friend was Sheik Al-Tayeb, with whom he had developed a warm relationship, above all in the pope’s visit to Egypt in April 2017.
It was a historically resonant moment. Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace on February 4 in Abu Dhabi on the 800th anniversary of Saint Francis of Assisi’s visit to the Sultan al-Malik al Kamil. That encounter in Damietta in 1219 has become an icon of the possibilities of transcending the walls of religious mistrust. Just as St Francis then crossed crusader army lines to be bravely given hospitality by the sultan, so Pope Francis and Sjeik Al-Tayeb seemed to defy the fundamentalists and tribalists in each of their religions in order to build a relationship that changed them both,
The document was a remarkable step forward, not just for Catholic-Muslim dialogue but for building world peace at a dangerous time of polarization. In an interview recently with Crux, Pope Francis’s old friend from his Buenos Aires days, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, said the declaration had the potential to transform Christian-Muslim dialogue in the way that Nostra Aetate has changed Christian-Jewish relations. The pope himself said that document “wrote a new page in the history of dialogue between Christianity and Islam and in the commitment to promote peace in the world on the basis of human brotherhood.”
The declaration’s 12 theses or propositions commit the world’s two major faiths to a post-liberal, post-globalized future, to creating an alternative to liberal individualism, but one forged from a spirituality of fraternity rather than a tribal politics of identity. You can see its origin in what Francis noted in Laudato Si’, that most people living on our planet profess to be believers, a fact that “should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity” [LS #201].
Abu Dhabi is an attempt to create a counter-movement to the wall-building, fissiparous forces gaining strength across the world on the back of a diabolical polarization.
Just weeks before visiting the UAE Francis gave a New Year speech on the state of the world that revealed his concerns at what he called “attempts to foment hostility between Muslims and Christians”. The vicious cycle of polarization was clear: murderous acts of terror by Islamists were being exploited by national populists as a justification for closing the doors to Syrian migrants in order to protect “Christian civilization”, while Islamists exploited western indifference to the war in Syria or the plight of Palestine to legitimize their war of terror.
In both cases, religion and religious sentiment are being instrumentalized in the name of nostalgic utopias, the caliphate and Christendom, in which the other –Christians or Muslims – are demonized.
In his speech in Abu Dhabi, Francis asked a gathering of 600 religious leaders to take responsibility for countering this vicious cycle, making clear that if they did not act together, no one would. “Either we build the future together or there will not be a future”, he told them.
Religious people must now step up, he said, to “contribute actively to demilitarize the human heart” by deepening “the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace”.
The document opens by boldly making clear that, first, fraternity is the fruit of faith in a God who is loving father of all, and that, second, fraternity is expressed by the care of creation and the support of the poor.
What follows is a sign-of-the-times discernment.
Francis and Al-Tayeb see a moral deterioration alongside technological advances, a coarsening of human conscience and a weakening of spiritual values and responsibility that are leading to extremism of both an agnostic, ideological kind and a fundamentalist religious one.
They also see nations preparing for war while the goods of the earth are monopolized by a few, the planet is destroyed and millions die in hunger and poverty.
It is a world crying out for a savior — for the recovery of God’s sovereignty. God’s reign is summarised in a series of 12 propositions that flow from a true understanding of God’s wisdom and will: freedom, diversity, justice based on mercy, equality of rights, dialogue, attention to the poor, and so on. And therefore, a condemnation of war, terrorism, hateful attitudes, discrimination and exclusion.
The document received very little press attention, and was criticized by right-wing Catholics for asserting that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions” are “willed by God in His wisdom”. But as the pope made clear on the plane, this was no more than what is said by Nostra Aetate. The Lord seeks unity, not uniformity; there can be no fraternity without freedom, no bridges without distances to cross.
That is why, in Abu Dhabi, Francis and Al-Tayeb have committed all sincere religious people to building this fraternity, from within their own traditions. While liberty and equality can have legal expression, fraternity cannot be imposed by the law. Fraternity is a moral obligation, not a legal one. It is a gift, the result of openness to God’s grace that produces a conversion in our way of seeing.
In Evangelii Gaudium Francis asks us to gaze contemplatively on the contemporary city to see God dwelling among people, fostering solidarity and fraternity, and to take the risk of face-to-face encounters, learning to serve others, developing a “fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbour, of finding God in every human being” [EG #87-92].
In Amoris Laetitia he urges us to be prepared to change and expand our ideas, not to seek uniformity but a a synthesis that enriches everyone, a “reconciled diversity” based in fraternal communion [AL #139].
Rather than a zero-sum game of conflicting identities and perceived threats, Francis invites us to trust that we will meet God not by trying to defend him or preserve Him, but by going out to the other, making space for them, and serving them.
Above all, he asks us to serve the poor. As Francis said in an address in Chile in January 2018, “the problem is not feeding the poor, or clothing the naked or visiting the sick, but rather recognizing that the poor, the naked, the sick, prisoners and the homeless have the dignity to sit at our table, to feel “at home” among us, to feel part of a family. This is the sign that the kingdom of heaven is in our midst.”
The polarization now sweeping across the western world is not the result of our disagreement but of our lack of fraternity. Only true religion can bring about that fraternity, starting with the brotherhood of believers. Francis’s call to fraternity has been insistent since the very first words from the balcony of St Peter’s after his election, when he prayed for the world, “that there may be a great spirit of fraternity”.
That is why the Abu Dhabi declaration matters. It is the spirit of fraternity given concrete form. A big dream by two friends, that we can make reality.