Pope Francis made a historic visit to Abu Dhabi, the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula and by all accounts the visit seems to have been a success. At the Interreligious Gathering the Pope acknowledged that he was following in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi who had met the Sultan al-Malik al Kamil 800 years ago during the Fifth Crusade, a meeting during which each recognised the other as men who knew and loved God. It’s said that for twenty days they conversed with one another about the ways of God. Like his namesake, Pope Francis came to Abu Dhabi as a pilgrim of peace, stating “I have welcomed the opportunity to come here as a believer thirsting for peace, as a brother seeking peace with the brethren. We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace”. He called those present at the Interreligious Gathering at which he spoke to a new way of being together, “we too in the name of God, in order to safeguard peace, need to enter together as one family into an ark which can sail the stormy seas of the world: the ark of fraternity”
What a wonderful image - the ark of fraternity! So often the ark has been used as a bulwark against those who are different, protecting communities from the enemy, the only place that is secure and safe in a troubling world. Noah’s ark, to which the Pope refers, saved Noah and his family from the destruction of the rest of the population who were living a sinful life. The ark was a place of justice and goodness and only within it was one safe. This image was transferred to Christianity where Jesus was seen as the Ark of Salvation. Only within the confines of a relationship with Jesus could people be saved and protected from the forces of evil that raged not just in the world but in other faiths too. For the Catholic Church this ark came to be associated with the Catholic Church so that membership of that Church alone could guarantee salvation. Thank God this attitude has changed though many religions are still suspicious and fearful of religious proselytization and conversion which reflects a little of that mind-set.
Now we have the image of the ark extended and expanded to include all those who desire peace and recognise the common humanity of all. We are quite literally in the same boat, members of the same species, interconnected with one another, facing the same hopes and joys, concerned about and vulnerable to the future of our planet and our world. As the Pope said, echoing his two predecessors, “There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future.”
In his speech the Pope set out a full agenda for humanity if we are to establish this ark of fraternity and truly recognise one another as brothers and sisters. This includes an appreciation of plurality and recognition of difference, a sense of our own identity, while respecting the identity of others, a protection of the rights and freedoms of others especially religious freedom. What the Pope wants for all of us is an open identity that doesn’t in any way compromise who we are or closes itself off from others but is enriched by our relationships.
Dialogue of course plays a part in all of this. Religions, the Pope says, “cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures. The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretence, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace”. And something not often mentioned in interreligious dialogue, but mentioned by the Pope, is prayer “as for the future of interreligious dialogue, the first thing we have to do is pray, and pray for one another: we are brothers and sisters!”
During his stay in Abu Dhabi the Pope signed a document with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. Its title is: On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. It’s easy to dismiss these kind of initiatives. Often documents and statements are assigned to the bookshelf if not history and readily forgotten but the fact that two very prominent leaders from Christianity and Islam have signed such a document is significant and it’s always on hand to be used as reference for the best intentions of the two faiths, even if we, their members, don’t always live up to the ideal. So what do we do with it? Hopefully we Christians and Muslims, with others, will dialogue about it. Hopefully, we will take it seriously and begin to think in terms of an ark of fraternity and, as the document suggests, the document itself will become the object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation". Now wouldn’t that be something?