Historic Meeting between Pope and influential Muslim leaders

Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, meet (PHOTO:Enlarge Andrew Medichini / Associated Press via INcontext International).

By Mike Burnard — Originally published in INcontext International

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, and Pope Francis signed on Monday [4 February] a document on human fraternity at the end of the Global Conference of Human Fraternity, which was held in Abu Dhabi, in the UAE.

The Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together seeks to encourage stronger relationships between people, promote coexistence, and confront extremism and its negative impacts.

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Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE’s vice president and the prime minister and ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the deputy supreme commander of the UAE’s armed forces, attended the ceremony. (Egypt Daily News)

A historic occasion
What could be regarded as one of the most significant documents ever signed by two of the world’s major religious leaders went largely unnoticed by the Christian community in the West. The significance was either misinterpreted by conspiracy theorists as the beginning of the “One-World religion” or miscommunicated by those who fail to understand the dynamics of the Muslim world.

However, for believers who have been trapped under the social and political oppression of Islam in the Middle East, this was a joyous day. The Grand Imam, one of the most influential men in the Muslim world, called on Muslims to “protect Christian communities in the Middle East, and for Muslims in the West to integrate in their hosting communities”. Al-Tayeb went on to say: “You are part of this nation… You are not a minority.”

Influential signatories
According to the Muslim 500 of 2018 – a list of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world – His Excellency Professor Dr Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayeb was ranked first. His influence was seen to be more than that of King Salman Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia or the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. This is extremely significant. The document on human fraternity was not signed by a Muslim leader with little religious influence outside the sphere of his own nation – it was signed by the leader of global Islamic thought and doctrine. No other person currently has more influence within the ranks of Islam than al-Tayeb.

Of equal significance is the institution that al-Tayeb represents. Founded in 970 AD, Al-Azhar University is one of the oldest and most important institutions in the Muslim world. The university is associated with the Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo (a part of central Cairo around the old walled city) and is renowned as “Sunni Islam’s most prestigious university”. In addition to higher education, it oversees a national network of schools with approximately two million students. According to Olivier Roy, over 4 000 teaching institutes in Egypt were affiliated with the university by 1996.

Pope Francis, meanwhile, is the leader of the biggest community in the world – the Catholic Church – and is, in the eyes of those in the non-Christian world, the main representative of Christianity. For Catholics, the Pope is more than a ceremonial leader – he is considered the spiritual successor to the Apostle Peter. According to The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as successor to the “Chair of Peter”, he is “the Supreme Pastor of the Catholic Church, God’s steward ordained to authoritatively teach, unify, and protect God’s people, keeping them free from error and deception”.

Many theories and conspiracies sadly cloud the wonderful testimony of the Pope. It is therefore important to understand his faith in his own words. On January 2 2015, Pope Francis said the following in his New Year message:
“Our faith is not an abstract doctrine or philosophy, but a vital and full relationship with a person: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who became man, was put to death, rose from the dead to save us, and is now living in our midst. I believe in God – not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God. There is God, and I believe in Jesus Christ, His incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being.”

During a mass in March 2014, the pope declared: “In the twilight of life, we will be judged on our love for, closeness to and tenderness towards our brothers and sisters. If we truly love them, we will be willing to share with them what is most precious to us, Jesus Himself and His Gospel. Jesus is not a King according to earthly ways. Rather, His reign is not to command, but to obey the Father, to give Himself over to the Father, so that His plan of love and salvation may be brought to fulfilment.”

The Document on Human Fraternity
The document that was signed is “an understanding of human fraternity, co-operation and a commitment to seek justice and freedom for all”. It is not a Gospel tract that declares co-operation in the name of Jesus and the triune God.

Pope Francis was criticised by some Christians for not mentioning the name of Jesus or the Trinity in the document, as this was seen to be a promotion of pluralism and placing God on the same level as the Muslim god.

However, the beauty contained in the document is the fact that even though Jesus is never mentioned by name, His character description leaves no question as to Who the Pope is referring to. In the document, Biblically-familiar terms like “peace and war” (21 mentions), “justice and injustice” (13 mentions) and “freedom and protection” (9 mentions) are used. This clearly points to character references of the God of Christianity – the “Prince of Peace” and the “God of justice”.

“Terrorism and extremism” (mentioned 16 times) are clearly indicative of the 1 976 Islamic terror attacks in 2018, in which nearly 12 000 were killed.

The signing of the document can therefore be seen as a breakthrough for the Church in the Middle East, which received acknowledgement and also a commitment from a significant leader that they belong in the Middle East. This will most probably not have an immediate effect on Christian activities but may initiate a process that changes minds and hearts towards the Kingdom of God.

Frome a Christian perspective
Matthew 5:9 says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And James 3:18 says: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

Scripture is uncompromising in calling those who follow Christ to be involved in acts of peace-making. This is not a call to be peace-keepers but peace-makers. This indicates obedient acts of engagement behind the “enemy line” and pursuing a process of seeking justice and freedom for all.

It is in this context that the document should be read – not simply from the comfort of a study in a safe environment, but from the context of this being the leader of a faith that has declared war and terror on most of the world.

From a Christian perspective, it is one of the most profound documents ever signed by such a prominent Muslim leader, denouncing persecution, terrorism, fundamentalism, radicalism, etc. Simultaneously, the Pope confirmed peace, justice and dialogue.

In the words of Pope Francis: “Justice is the second wing of peace, which often is not compromised by single episodes, but is slowly eaten away by the cancer of injustice.”

For positive Kingdom-building aftereffects of the meeting between Ahmed al-Tayeb and the Pope and the signing of the document
For inter-faith dialogues to offer opportunities for the Gospel to be shared and heard
For Christians living in the Middle East to be a witness and blessing to their communities

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One Comment

  1. Peter McGregor

    Whilst I admire Mike Burnard founder of INcontext International,for the work he has done in Christian Ministry, I am amazed to see that his article conveys the idea that all is well regarding a compact between Christianity (represented by the POPE) and the Muslim world represented by Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb. The following scripture is self explanatory; given to me by the LORD Himself, while I was in travail about this meeting and the possible consequences there of. I am also bemused by the lack of comment by other Christians in leadership; has the coming deception that we have been warned about taken its full toll?
    “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.
    (2Co 6:14-18 KJV) One just wonders with whom the Pope is walking?
    Blessings,…….Your Brother in Christ.