By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
What began as a national initiative in the United Arab Emirates has now become a global enterprise. In December 2018, the President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, declared that 2019 would be the Year of Tolerance. One of the hoped-for goals was that of positioning the UAE as a global centre for promoting tolerance through projects aimed at encouraging dialogue between cultures and across civilizations.
Pope Francis in the UAE
In February 2019, His Holiness Pope Francis travelled to Abu Dhabi after receiving an invitation from His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. It was there that on 4 February the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, His Eminence Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed a historic Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.
Abrahamic Family House
Immediately, the newly signed document took on flesh. Just one day later on 5 February, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince announced the construction of the Abrahamic Family House on Saadiyat Island. The complex will eventually house a Christian church, a mosque and a synagogue as well as an educational centre. It will thus be a landmark not only in the traditional sense, but also because it will serve as a place where people of different faith traditions can learn, worship and dialogue together.
From the United Arab Emirates to the world
Committee member Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak says that this latest proposal to “bring world cultures together” is rooted in an overall desire on the part of the United Arab Emirates. The message, he says is:
“to simplify faith back to its simplest form. To simplify life to what all our religious books basically say: be good to thy neighbour, love thy neighbour, help thy neighbour. In a world that is so connected, in reality, we have been so disconnected. Projects and initiatives like the Abrahamic Family House, and there will be many more to come in the future, will bring people together. It’s a dream come true where the people of the UAE, a people who favour tolerance, have the opportunity of sharing that with the world”.
Higher Committee begins its work in Rome
On 19 August, a committee was formed in the UAE to concretize the goals formulated in the Document on Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam. The seven members of the committee (2 representing the Catholic Church, 2 from Al-Azhar University, and 3 representing the UAE) met for the first time on 11 September. It was the 18th anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. In his remarks to the group, Pope Francis noted the significance of the manifestation of the desire to promote life and fraternity being made on the same date as others had chosen to sow death and destruction. Shortly after this first meeting in Rome, Rabbi Bruce Lustig joined the Higher committee.
Higher Committee takes its message to New York
The Higher Committee chose to meet the second time on 20 September in New York, in an effort to go global with their message as world leaders converge on New York City for the opening of the 74th Session of the United Nations. Committee member Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam noted in a briefing with journalists on Friday that the Higher Committee is willing to work with any nation who is open to the ideals expressed in the Document. He added that the first steps have been made with the UN Secretary General toward possible adoption of the Document by the United Nations. The Secretary General “is going to request member States to include the principles contained in this historical document in their local legislation”, the Judge said.
This is a tall order, given the fact that just one of the many goals of the Document on Human Fraternity is that of introducing a new “concept of citizenship based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice”. Regarding this goal, Committee member Msgr Yoannes Gaid explained that the core of the Document is that all of us are brothers. Equality is based on this truth, he added, an equality that thus extends to duties and rights as well. Freedom, Msgr Gaid emphasized, is actually based on non-violence. “Violence,” he said, “is against faith and citizenship”.
Associated with this goal is that of eliminating the term “minority”. Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam spelled out that the motivating force behind this goal of the Document is that the very term itself is biased and discriminatory against the “so-called minority”. For this reason, he said, the Document is the “bravest document in history” because it directly challenges stark realities such as these.