Why the pope was in Islam's heartland

His trip is part of a larger attempt by Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders since 9/11 to define the common theological threads that can repel violence and protect religious minorities.

Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Cairo, stand at an inter-religious meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 4.

This week’s visit of Pope Francis to the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, is certainly a historic first. It symbolizes two faiths, Christian and Muslim, trying to build bridges. Yet the trip was far more than symbolic.

The pope was just one of many at the largest and most diverse gathering ever in the Arab world of religious leaders, including Jewish and Hindu clergy. At the top of the agenda for the confab in the United Arab Emirates was a demand for a new listening rather than a rehash of old debates.

The UAE, along with Jordan and Morocco, have been leaders since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in creating forums for interfaith dialogue. This latest gathering, called the Global Conference on Human Fraternity, builds on 17 years of hard work since 2001 to find a commonality in different theologies that can counter extremist violence and protect religious minorities. As the pope said before his trip, “Faith in God unites and does not divide, it draws us closer despite differences, it distances us from hostilities and aversion.”

Jordan, for example, which is a model of relative harmony in a religiously diverse society, found some success in 2007. It won global support from Christian and Muslim leaders for a statement on common values, such as “love of God” and “love thy neighbor.”

In 2016, a forum in Morocco issued the “Marrakesh Declaration,” a document that spells out how Islamic law calls for the protection of religious minorities. For its part, the United States launched an annual summit of religious leaders last year aimed at advancing religious liberty.

Such grand conferences are reflected in smaller efforts at religious reconciliation, especially after a mass killing. In Pittsburgh, the Muslim community raised $200,000 after the massacre of 11 worshipers at a synagogue in October. Similar responses occurred in 2016 after a mass shooting at a Quebec mosque and the killing of a Roman Catholic priest in a French church.

One scholar who helps define the theological threads that bind the great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain. 

“To be a child of Abraham is to learn to respect the other children of Abraham even if their way is not ours, their covenant not ours, their understanding of God different from ours,” he writes in a book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.”

“We know that we are loved. That must be enough. To insist that being loved entails that others be unloved is to fail to understand love itself,” he stated.

Practical ideas like that often flow at these world conferences among faiths. They may help communities of believers in deterring extremists who negate others to justify their own beliefs. The ideas are not new. But the level of listening is.

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