An Address in a Seminar commemorating Five Years of Marrakesh Declaration (September 14, 2021)

In your way – or in the right way…

While preparing this address, I came to read a book on humorous anecdotes that was published some time ago. This particular story caught my eye: “So it happened at a peace conference of the world’s religious leaders. The leaders reached an agreement on a common basic essence of each represented religion, namely, that they all would protect and cherish life. After the meeting, when everyone was to depart to their home destinations, an Iranian imam said goodbye to an Italian cardinal at the airport, saying, “Yes, good friend, after all, we both serve the same God. You in your own way and I in His way!”

Anecdotes are what they are and are not expected to be quite true. In this particular one, the Peace Conference of Religious Leaders and the two representatives of their respective religions could, however, be real. It could even be so that the story originates from Sant’Egidio’s annual peace prayer! Less pertinent is the impression given between the lines that the meeting would have produced a joint statement about some common basic essence; an interfaith dialogue with such outcome is hardly practiced by religious leaders. Even the punchline is not very credible; perhaps the story has been a quip or just for laughs from the beginning. Whatever the exact nature of the anecdote, it nevertheless does leave us with the notion that engaging in an interfaith dialogue does not require relativizing one’s own religion.

Differences are to be recognized

It is not possible to engage in interfaith dialogue without becoming aware and recognizing distinctions and even differences between religious traditions. This is not foreign to religions themselves. For example, it holds true that the Abrahamic religions have from time to time been accused of disturbing or even breaking peace because they most evidently include the idea of ​​serving the true God. But as it is laid out in different ways in the holy Scriptures of these religious traditions, difference is recognized and its value even in some manner understood. The (the January 2016) Marrakesh Declaration (on the Rights of Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities)—issued by Muslim scholars and politicians—quotes a well-known passage from Al-Hujurat or the 49th surah (“The Chambers”): “People, we have made you male and female and made you peoples and tribes so that you can get to know each other” (verse 13). As for the Declaration, it states on this basis that “People are brothers in humanity, regardless of the natural, societal, or ideological differences.” On the other hand, a recent document from The Episcopal Conference of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church—Guidelines for Meeting Religions (2020)—points out that more than once Jesus sets such a person as an example of faith who did not belong to the people of Israel and did not profess that particular faith. The examples from the Old Testament, of course, we share with Judaism as they are part of our common tradition. The Church document states: “Some Old Testament accounts also show a broader understanding of God who affects all people, cultures, and traditions.”

Fuel on the fire or oil on the waves?

The central focus of interfaith dialogue is peace. Throughout its ten years of work, the USKOT Forum—or the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions in Finland (CORE Forum)—has underlined this very aim. It is a question of local social and societal peace on the one hand, and of promoting a wider “culture of peace” on the other. I quote the Omani Minister of Religion, Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed al Salmi, who agrees with the description that was penned by Hans Küng, a theologian who died last spring. They both emphasize the need for interfaith dialogue. Here is the quote: ”The reformist Catholic thinker, Hans Küng, in his work on a global ethic and global responsibility, has presented a plan for world peace in three interrelated principles: First, there is no human coexistence without an international morality; second, there is no peace between nations without peace between religions: and third, there is no peace between world religions without a dialogue between them.” In the last few years, the issue of interfaith peace has sharpened into the question of the protection and rights of minorities. This is also clear in the introduction to the Marrakesh Declaration. Perhaps the most important background figure to the declaration, Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, made a reference to the same issue at the 2014 Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies in Abu Dhabi (UAE): ”Peace is a right that precedes all others. Everyone has the right to live free from violence and to settle or roam freely. No one can deny another this right or cause it to be denied.” Addresses like this—I am referring to both the Abu Dhabi Forum and the Marrakesh Declaration—are all the more relevant today as the world follows with concern how the Taliban will pursue the human rights, minority and religious policies in Afghanistan. In this context, I cannot fail to highlight the debate I have followed in many interfaith peace meetings. Time and time again, the media has been criticized for “pouring fuel on the fire” instead of pouring oil on the waves (as Mohammed Moussaoui, President of the French Council of Muslim Faith, put it in a panel). Of course, the question is not simple, because in the name of religions, violence is committed regardless of what the religions and their respective leaders teach. The media cannot be demanded to ignore this in silence. Yet it is reasonable to ask whether kind of “abjection journalism” has some special status or role in aggravating religious intolerance? Why not place peaceful actions, kind deeds, and any kind of consensus to the fore? If the media is meant to give a wholesome picture of the world we all live in, all these are also an essential part of it.

“There is no compulsion in religion”

Religiously based violence and repression of minorities abound in the world. Interfaith dialogue reveals that the root cause is rarely in the religion itself, whereas more often it can be found either in ignorance or in a completely intentional abuse of religion. The Marrakesh Declaration reminds us in the words of Al-Baqara or the 2nd surah (“The Cow”) that “there is no compulsion in religion” (verse 256). The same idea was put forward in almost the same words by the Church Father Tertullian (decd. 230 AD): “The practice of religion does not include coercion, for religious faith must not be embraced by coercion but by free choice.” This is also confirmed by Augustine (decd. 430 AD) 200 years later: “No one can and should be forced to believe”. In Finland, there is little or no risk that anyone will be forced into a religion other than their own. The hidden problem may, however, be that an attempt is made to force someone converted to another religion to come back through mental or even physical violence. In Finnish society, the relationship between the majority and the minority appears as a question of responsibility. The responsibility of the majority religion, that is, my own Evangelical Lutheran Church, is, without doubt, greater in both the dialogue and the defense of minority rights. The resources of our church are substantially greater than those of others, and it must also use them for the benefit of others and the whole.

‘Peace’ as joint everyday life

The Evangelical Lutheran Church plays a key role at all levels in fostering interfaith dialogue and such dialogic attitude in Finland. From this vantage point it can be said that interfaith dialogue is not just about the meetings of religious leaders—as important as they are for establishing connections—whereas it is about informal interaction, raising interest, making acquaintances, enabling discussion, and mutual sharing. These are especially essential locally, and to be specific: in each neighborhood. Everyday dialogue is central to building community and supporting social and societal peace. In fact, it may be so that what we somewhat solemnly and nobly call ‘peace’ is in practical terms about the same as ‘undisturbed casual everyday life’. Of course, peace also means the absence of and resistance to war and violence. In a peaceful society, however, the emphasis is on the everyday side of peace: in amity, partnership as well as in safe and sound interaction. Seen from within, the world of interfaith dialogue and the friendly encounter between religions is much stronger and ampler than is generally comprehended. A good example about this is the Marrakesh Declaration. Only very few people in Finland are aware about the attitude towards religious minorities in the Islamic world that the Declaration insists should be practiced. We have a common mission to make this culture of peace and peaceful encounter more visible. In doing so, we must work in three directions. First, we have a lot to do so that even the active members of our own religious communities understand and feel that they are involved in interfaith dialogue and really see its significance. Second, the building of social and societal peace requires close relations with the public authorities and joint action in that direction; this work has been diligently done by the CORE Forum. The third and final—but not the least—direction is the media, and I mean both the public media and various social media platforms. Unless it is seen or heard that religions want to promote a culture of peace and a culture of understanding, and not a culture of war and confrontation, the abjection journalism mentioned will dominate the headlines. At the very beginning I pointed out that Abrahamic religions in particular are easily accused of disturbing the peace. I will, for this reason, conclude this address with a remark by Chief Rabbi Haïm Corsia of France that he presented at an interfaith peace conference. According to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of a fool to the left” (NRSV translation). Some Finnish political parties have recently made opaque claims about the heart’s place, but Corsia did not, of course, comment on these turbid views on human physiology. In contrast, he pointed out that the heart of a person who is facing—that is: partnering—me is on the right in the sense of being in a right, welcoming, and accepting place. So, it is a wise heart that I, along with Corsia, have in mind. I believe it is safe to say that all Abrahamic religions stand firm in maintaining that such a heart is the “fons et culmen”—the cornerstone—for all interfaith dialogue and respect for minority rights.