When American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington predicted in the 1990s that post-Cold War global conflicts would be defined by a “clash of civilizations,” with people’s cultural and religious beliefs forming the center of violent dispute, he likely couldn’t have foreseen exactly how eerily prescient his prediction would seem given the current international climate.
The hypothesis that wars would be taking place between cultures, rather than countries, seems to be evidenced in the current age of extremist and fundamentalist violence, where for many people terrorism is a bigger concern than any formal armed conflict.
Yet in the view of one Vatican official, it is exactly this dynamic that Pope Francis and key Muslim leaders, as well as members of a new Higher Committee for interreligious tolerance in the United Arab Emirates, are trying to curb through increased dialogue.
In an Aug. 26 interview with Vatican News, the official news site for the Vatican, Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, head of the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue, spoke of the impact the committee, charged with implementing a joint-declaration signed by Pope Francis and Ahmed El Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University, could have.
Asked if a concrete application of the declaration could be a first step in ending this “clash of civilizations” seen in mass terrorist attacks such as happened on Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, Ayuso Guixot said that if the concepts of the declaration are put into action, they will lead to peace.
“Prayer, dialogue, respect and solidarity are the only winning weapons against terrorism, fundamentalism and every type of war and violence,” he said, saying they are weapons “which form part of the spiritual arsenals of every religion.”
“I think the declaration from Abu Dhabi is an appeal to a global ‘civilization of love,’” he said, referring to a term coined by St. John Paul II. This “civilization of love,” he added, “is opposed to those who desire a clash of civilizations!”
During his Feb. 3-5 visit to the United Arab Emirates, Francis and El Tayyeb on Feb. 4 signed the joint declaration titled, “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” which urged people of all faiths to strive for fraternity and solidarity, resisting violence.
Last Monday, the UAE formed a 7-member Higher Committee aimed at implementing the document, and it marks the latest initiative put forward by the UAE during what they have dubbed as the “Year of Tolerance.”
Members come from different faith traditions and hail from the UAE, Egypt, Spain and Italy. They include Ayuso Guixot, and Monsignor Yoannis Gaid, former personal secretary to Francis.
Among other things, the committee has been tasked with developing a framework for achieving the goals of the declaration.
It will draft, implement and oversee plans to reach these objectives, and it will also push legislative leaders to adhere to the document’s provisions to ensure mutual respect and peaceful coexistence at a national level - a process that will involve meeting different religious leaders and heads of international organizations, among others.
The committee will also be responsible for overseeing the Abrahamic Family House, a building dedicated to interfaith harmony.
In an Aug. 22 statement on the formation of the committee, El Tayyeb said its formation marks “a serious step towards achieving the objectives of the Human Fraternity Document, which is considered as the first of its kind in our modern history to establishing the culture of citizenship, coexistence and brotherhood.”
Establishing the committee, he said, encourages the spread of solidarity, unity, fraternity and tolerance throughout the world. “The spread of this document’s principles and its implementation will definitely go a long way in achieving security and stability all over the world,” he said.
In an Aug. 26 statement, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis was pleased to learn the committee had been formed.
“Although sadly evil, hatred and division often make news, there is a hidden sea of goodness that is growing and leads us to hope in dialogue, reciprocal knowledge and the possibility of building, together with the followers of other religions and all men and women of good will, a world of fraternity and peace,” he said on behalf of the pope, ensuring them of Francis’s gratitude and encouragement and voicing hope that other, similar initiatives would spring up around the world.
In his interview with Vatican News, Ayuso Guixot said he believes the committee is a “significant gesture” which will help humanity in the effort to pursue peace and a healthy coexistence.
He thanked the pope for his “untiring commitment” in pursuing ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, saying the pontiff’s efforts are in continuity with his predecessors.
“Pope Francis, with his dialogue of respect and friendship, in words and in works, I would add, does not cease to exhort the world and all people of goodwill to promote three things: fraternity, peace and coexistence,” Ayuso Guixot said, calling these the “ABC’s” of the future.
Ayuso Guixot had few details to offer in terms of what the committee will be doing but insisted that members will strive to engage everyone “from the base up and vice versa,” including international organizations, and social, religious, academic and political leaders.
He spoke of the importance of education in instilling the principles outlined in the declaration and insisted that those who say this type of dialogue risks syncretism are controlled by fear.
“I think fear is the number one enemy of interreligious dialogue,” he said, stressing that the Catholic Church’s efforts in this regard are not about “making a melting pot in which all religions are considered equal,” but it is rather about affirming the notion that everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, have equal dignity before God.
“We must therefore commit ourselves because God, who created us, is not a cause for division, but unity,” Ayuso Guixot said, adding that pluralism of any kind, not just religious, is an invitation to “reflect on our identity without which we do not have an authentic interfaith dialogue.”
Whether the committee will have a long-term effect beyond mere politicking is yet to be seen, however, for those involved, just having the shot at making a difference is an opportunity not to be squandered.