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Pope Francis and Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque, pay homage at the tomb of the Founders, Abu Dhabi, Feb. 4, 2019Copyright Holy See Press Office

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GLASGOW, Scotland, February 3, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — A bishop in Scotland has said that he hopes there will be an annual celebration of the 2019 Abu Dhabi document, co-signed by Pope Francis and a Muslim imam, which states that “the diversity of religions” are “willed by God in His wisdom.”

Bishop Brian McGee of the diocese of Argyll, said that he hoped the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which was co-signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, Ahmad al-Tayyeb on February 4, 2019, could be celebrated every year on February 4, which has been designated the International Day of Human Fraternity by the United Nations. 

“That way it can be a bridge between the Holocaust Memorial Day at the end of January, and Interfaith Harmony Week in the first week of February,” McGee said before playing an Arabic “message of support” from Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, the Secretary-General of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity.

McGee was speaking at an online conference sponsored by the Scottish Catholic Bishops Conference and the Ahl Al Bait Society earlier this week, which was also attended by retired Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald and by the Muslim scholar, Sheik Mohammad Ali Shomali of Iran.

The online meeting, which attracted over 185 participants, included an introduction by Bishop Brian McGee, papers by Fitzgerald and Shomali, a brief exchange of remarks between the cardinal and the Muslim scholar, and questions from the virtual audience, read by moderator Sister Isabel Smyth, Secretary of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue.

Caridnal Fitzgerald said during his speech that, in his view, the human fraternity document is “fully in agreement with the declaration Nostra aetate of Vatican II.”

‘Not everybody has been in agreement with this Document on Human Fraternity’

“Some people have criticized Pope Francis for a document that is ‘social’, they say, rather than theological,” Fitzgerald noted.

“And it is true that this document is geared more to cooperation in practical matters than to a deepening of theological understanding,” he conceded.

“And yet it is based on a theological understanding of creation, and sees the creative acts of God as the foundation for the fraternity that it desires to promote.” 

Fitzgerald told the audience that the human fraternity document is “courageous, wide-ranging, realistic, but also a work in progress.” 

“I think that the two leaders who signed this document have had the courage to engage with one another,” he said, before giving an overview of the contemporary history of dialogue between the Holy See and Muslim scholars. The talks were interrupted by the “commotion among Muslims” [inspired by reports concerning] Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg. However, Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb of Al-Azar went to Rome to meet Pope Francis in 2017, the first imam to go to Vatican City to meet a pope, and Pope Francis became the first pontiff to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula when he went to Abu Dhabi in 2019. 

“So these two religious leaders have shown that they were ready to engage the members of their respective religions in discussion and action together though neither of them would be surprised at meeting with opposition,” the Cardinal continued. 

Not everybody has been in agreement with this Document on Human Fraternity, and that is why I say it is a courageous document.” 

The cardinal did not detail the objections to the Abu Dhabi declaration, but chief among them was resistance to its statement that God willed a “diversity of religions.” Pope Francis later informally qualified this statement by saying that Scholastic theologians referred to God’s “permissive will” to account for the existence of many faiths. 

The Document on Human Fraternity is “wide-ranging” in that it speaks about rights, duties, freedom of belief in expression and practise, extremism, including terrorism, and protection of places of worship, Fitzgerald continued.

It is also all-embracing, and no-one is excluded, he added.

“Fraternity is based not on religious belonging but a more fundamental belonging to the human family as such,” the cardinal said.

“And I would say as a Catholic that this is fully in agreement with the declaration Nostra aetate of Vatican II.”

He noted that the wide scope of the human fraternity documentleads to a “certain vagueness” and that it does not provide definitions of such concepts as “authentic teaching”, “full citizenship,” and “unproductive discussions.”

However, he praised the human fraternity documentfor its realism, noting that it takes into account change, constant conflict, inequality, terrorism, extremism “in all its forms”, and particularly the use of religion to incite violence and war. The cardinal blamed the media for not highlighting Muslim condemnation of terrorist acts. 

Fitzgerald described the human fraternity documentas “a proposal and a project” and said that it is an “invitation” to fraternity and reconciliation between all believers and unbelievers. He touched also on the creation of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, noting that a Jewish rabbi has been included.

“… [A]ll of us [are invited] to adopt a culture of dialogue, to engage in mutual cooperation, and to foster reciprocal understanding,” he concluded.

Cardinal Fitzgerald has a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome and a B.A. in Arabic from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. In 1991, he was made a bishop by St. John Paul II, and in 2002, he was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and “raised to the rank of Archbishop”, said Sister Isabelle.

In 2006, Fitzgerald was made Apostolic Nuncio in Egypt, and there has been speculation in The Tablet that he had essentially been expelled from Rome by Benedict XVI. He retired from diplomatic service in 2012. While living in Liverpool, he was made a Cardinal in 2019 by Pope Francis.

“I don’t know if you’re told why you’re created a cardinal,” Sister Isabel told the prelate, “but we all think it’s in recognition of your great work in not just Christian-Muslim relations, but also in interreligious dialogue.”  

Fratelli tutti as “expansion” of the Abu Dhabi document

Sheik Shomali has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Manchester and is the founding director of the International Institute of Islamic Studies in Qom, Iran. He is the editor-in-chief of two journals. He has participated in interreligious dialogue for over 20 years and written several books.

Shomali said that the human fraternity documentwas something that everyone could appreciate because it was “no longer just theological reflection.” An advantage of the human fraternity document, he said, was that it “managed to go beyond doctrinal boundaries and reach all major issues that we as human beings face, and all the challenges that we have.”

The Muslim scholar said that there has been increasing appreciation of the human fraternity documentsince it was signed, and both signers have “built upon it.” The establishment of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity is one example, and the May 14, 2020 Day of Fasting, Prayer and Charitable Works as a response to the pandemic is another.  There was also the publication of Fratelli tuttiwhich the Grand Imam called “an extension of the Document on Human Fraternity.” Shomali agreed with this definition.

“What made me very happy is that the encyclical showed that Pope Francis finds in the core of his mission the same thing that he said in the document that is signed by a Muslim leader,” he said. 

Shomali said that the great contemporary challenge is not a rivalry between Christianity and Islam but rather “families breaking down”, faith being abandoned, and “lots of issues relating to morality.” Therefore, he really appreciated that the human fraternity documentidentified common problems “in a spirit of fraternity or competition.” It showed that the Pope, Grand Imam and their “institutions” could go beyond “ethnic, cultural and even doctrinal differences and boundaries and turn towards the face of God.”

The Muslim scholar said that the human fraternity documenthas a universal perspective “that can truly be a meeting point” for Islam, Christianity, other faiths and even to those of no faith. 

“If we stay tuned to the true nation of human beings, we realize that we have a responsibility to work together to solve the painful problems that afflict us,” Shomali said. 

Shomali also commented on the human fraternity document’s condemnation of the use of religion to excuse violence. 

“The document very clearly says that God does not need anyone to use His name to legitimize violence and cover up their interest and thirst for power,” he said.

Aileen Campbell, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, also took part, saying that the Scottish [Scottish National Party] Government is “committed to inclusiveness and tolerance.” 

“We’re a country of only five million, so it makes sense that what we do, we do it together,” she said.

Reflecting on “challenges” of “intolerance and hate” in Scotland, Campbell said that the Government needs to use the “privileged position” that they have to call out “hate” and to use their leadership roles to “foster solidarity and peace.”

The ruling Scottish National Party has promoted a new hate crimes bill that many Christians believe will restrict their freedom of religion, and even criminalize expression of passages of both Scripture and the Catechism. 

Campbell was warmly thanked by Sister Isabel, who assured her that the statements on the human fraternity documentare very similar to the sentiments she had expressed.