Dr. Irfan A. Omar, Associate Professor of Islamic and Interfaith Studies, Marquette University, Wisconsin, USA, presented a lecture on the theme “Pope Francis and Grand Imam Al Tayeb on Human Fraternity: Advancing a Culture of Mutual Respect”, on 24 February 2020, at Sacred Heart Cathedral, New Delhi, India. The lecture was organized by the Islamic Studies Association, Vidyajyoti College of Theology.
In his opening remarks Dr. Omar pointed out the rationale for dialogue between believers of different religious faiths. He said: “It must be obvious to us that we live in a relational reality; we are related and are inter-dependent in more ways than we often realize. At the very basic level, we are all brothers and sisters”. Quoting the words of Rabbi Joshua Heschel (d. 1972), Dr. Omar defined the goal of interfaith dialogue: “Neither to flatter nor to refute one another, but to help one another; to share insight and learning, to cooperate in academic ventures on the highest scholarly level, and to search for the power of love and the care of man”.
The document on Human Fraternity by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, which was issued in February of 2019, is a fraternal conversation between Christians and Muslims who are brothers and sisters one to another without excluding others, as Dr. Omar said. He held that the document is an excellent example of what may be called “applied interfaith dialogue” since the document speaks of the need to re-state ‒ vigorously ‒ our responsibility towards others. He emphasized the important role of faith in bringing people together, instead of dividing them in to “us” and “them”. A Christian would remember spontaneously that God has no favorites (Romans 2:11), and all of us are brothers and sisters even though we may belong to different religions. Thus, any trace of divisiveness is diabolic. The Human Fraternity document is designed to strengthen the bonds between people of faith, seeking to do so by encouraging the establishment of enduring institutions and cultural practices.
Commenting on the document, Dr. Omar said that it is unique and timely in many ways. He highlighted three salient points: (1) for people of faith, the goal is often described as striving to realize the will of God. A human person strives to the will of God in the world by cultivating and practicing empathy towards his/her brothers and sisters by serving all who are in need. Prophets are our models in living lives that please God; (2) practicing empathy helps us grow to appreciate the diversity of languages, cultures, and religions that are so much a part of our world; (3) living together and peacefully demands that we collaborate with people of other faiths who too strive to live according to the will of God through empathy, thus appreciating the value of difference.
Dr. Omar also called the document a unique interreligious source, being jointly authored by two highly visible and authoritative figures in their respective faith traditions. Moreover, the document first and foremost a declaration that promotes justice for every person. Human Fraternity demands that all people of goodwill must acknowledge the suffering endured by many in the world today, especially migrants and refugees who flee poverty, hunger, and violence. The document also speaks in the name of the poor, the orphans, the widows, the refugees, the exiled, and the victims of war, persecution, and other injustices. The first step in such acknowledgement is to act in the service to the poor. Having justice as its aim, the document is action-oriented, Dr. Omar said.
Dr. Omar also pointed out that among the many notable themes that the document discusses are two that appear to be particularly important in the current context: standing up against the illegitimate use of violence in the name of religion and standing up for freedom of religion when under threat.
Dr. Omar appreciatively commented on the way in which the Human Fraternity document invokes the name of God to which both Christians and Muslims can organically relate. “Some of its language reflects traditional Muslim expressions, and others remind the reader of deep-rooted practices within Christian traditions”, he said. He admired the way it integrates scriptural passages from the Qur’an and the Bible with the body of its text.
In summary, Dr. Omar said that the Human Fraternity document is a landmark in the dialogue among people of all faiths and goodwill, as it connects them one another and with God, appreciating differences and demanding solidarity and collaboration between all people. The document moves dialogue forward by seeking to build understanding even if there is no common ground (for instance, in areas of doctrines) by elevating relations to be based on “common respect” despite differences. It invites one to recognize that empathy is based on commonality, and this helps to bring together people of different faiths. Dr. Omar emphasized that the document is meant to be studied, discussed, and reflected on by students and researchers, so that its tenets may be spread far and wide in the hope of promoting universal peace and justice.