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Current Issue
September, 2018
Volume 44, Number 3
  
1 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




Pope Francis lights a candle during an interfaith peace gathering outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, on 20 September 2016. The pope and other religious leaders were attending a peace gathering marking the 30th anniversary of the first peace encounter. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

The United Nations observes World Interfaith Harmony Week every year beginning on 1 February. Although the UN is not a religious organization, its primary concern is for peace in the world — and religion can help bring this about. While the claim that religion is the basis of all conflict in the world is unfair and untrue, neither is it true that religion plays no role in conflicts around the world. The Pew Research Center reports on the state of religions around the world clearly show that almost every part of the globe experiences some kind of conflict that has at very least a religious component. Religions consciously and unconsciously provide powerful symbols that intensify conflicts, demonize the Other and make compromises more difficult for all parties involved. While interfaith harmony would not solve all conflicts in the world, it would greatly alleviate many of them.

Interfaith harmony — and the lack thereof — is something CNEWA experiences every day in the countries where we work. The Middle East, for example, has been an arena for incredible sectarian violence with thousands of people — Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and others — being killed and literally millions being displaced. However, it is also the place where Muslim youths in Mosul helped clean up a Christian church damaged in the battle against ISIS. Both religious harmony and sectarian hatred exist in our world. During this week the UN wishes to remind the world of the importance of interfaith harmony for every person — religious or not — on the planet.

Although there have always been great and open spirits in the Catholic Church who respected and loved people who were not Christians — we need think only of St. Francis meeting with Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the 4th Crusade — the Church committed itself officially to working for interfaith harmony at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). On 28 October 1965 the decree Nostra Ætate (“In Our Times”) was promulgated. Officially known as the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, this short document made extraordinary advances. Noting that all religions attempt to address and provide answers to the great questions of human existence, it went on to declare: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” Further, it stated, the Church “urges her sons {sic} to enter ...into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”

The document speaks with great respect about Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Recognizing centuries of conflict, vituperation and downright hatred that often existed between Christians, Muslims and Jews, the church called on all to forget the past, to strive for mutual understanding and to work together to “preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.” With the declaration that not “all Jews indiscriminately at that time {the death of Jesus} nor Jews today, can be charged with crimes committed during his {[Christ’s} passion,” the Catholic Church thereby officially rejected the long-held claim that Jews were deicides, i.e. god killers, worthy of persecution and even hatred.

Great strides have been made in promoting interfaith understanding and harmony since that October day in 1965. Dialogues have been set up on international, national and local levels to help believers understand the Other, to promote cooperation and prevent conflict. Almost every Christian Church and every world religion is engaged in some type of dialogue and exchange.

Clearly there is still a great deal more to be done. However, the UN International Interfaith Harmony Week adds a special urgency to the interfaith endeavor. As mentioned earlier, the UN is not a religious organization. But this single week underlines the fact that interfaith harmony is not something which impacts only religious people; it is crucial for the very survival of a planet already wracked with too many conflicts with religious components.