Wednesday, September 19, 2012

World religious leaders’ appeal from Sarajevo

Hajrudin Somun *

More than 200 religious leaders of all faiths and representatives from the worlds of politics and culture met in Sarajevo earlier this month for a three-day interfaith conference.

One of the participants said the city of Sarajevo symbolized contemporary history due to the three terrible wars it witnessed in the last century. Many conference-goers recognized that the city has been a symbol of religious coexistence, and sent out a message of tolerance to different faiths and cultures. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said the Balkans have always been a place where different religions and cultures mixed and that “Sarajevo was globalized before Europe.”

Orthodox Christian priests pray during a joint prayer with other Christian clergy outside the Sarajevo Cathedral in Sarajevo on Sept. 11.
(PHOTO AP, Sulejman Omerbasic)
Apart from Prime Minister Monti, the meeting, organized by in close collaboration with the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate, the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna-Sarajevo and the Bosnian Jewish Community, was attended by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Cote d’Ivoire Prime Minister Jeannot Ahoussou-Kouadio, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic and the chairman of the Bosnian Presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic. They all spoke in affirmative terms of tolerance, reconciliation, pluralism, trust and respect for others, but without providing tangible ideas on how to achieve those goals. Heads of religious communities and hundreds of professors, theologians, intellectuals and journalists spoke in similar terms, but more openly, and had more concrete ideas on how to solve some of the religious, social, humanitarian and cultural issues faced by the world today.

Close to a thousand participants from nearly 60 countries -- from Brazil, Norway and France, to Tunisia, India, Indonesia and Japan and Turkey, which was solely represented by Chief Rabbi İsak Haleva -- participated in 28 panel discussions. The participants debated various issues, such as Muslims and Christians in dialogue, finding man by searching for God, loneliness in cities, integration of immigrants, love for the poor as a path to ecumenism, living together in the era of globalization, the Mediterranean Sea as a space of encounter, religions in Asia, Islam and democracy, etc. A particular voice of Africa was expressed by a theologian from Benin, Leopold Djogbede, who stressed that “in Africa today God became closer to man, but man has become estranged.” His view is that the old “African solidarity had crumbled and people became possessed by money,” noting that the striking miners in South Africa are victims of this money-grabbing mindset.

Hearing about backlash to ‘Innocence of Muslims’

The news about the murder of the US ambassador to Libya and the violence that erupted outside American embassies in many Arab and Muslim countries in reaction to the film “Innocence of Muslims,” which ridicules the Islamic faith and the Prophet Muhammad, did not reach the attendees until the end of the meeting. It was received with consternation, but there was no time for any commentary. However, the recent false accusation of a Christian girl for burning pages of the Quran in Pakistan was addressed by the anti-extremist Grand Imam of the Lahore Mosque, Muhammad Abdul Khabir Azad. Speaking about Pakistan’s former Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Roman Catholic who was murdered last year after courageously speaking out against the misuse of the country’s blasphemy laws by Islamist extremists, the imam said: “Bhatti was a long-time friend who had big dreams for Pakistan and the whole world. … He took numerous steps in support of religious minorities and promoted interfaith harmony.”

One of the leading issues of the huge gathering was the situation connected to the “Arab Spring,” and pluralism in the Middle East that I single out due to my specific interest and for the simple reason that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, attend many other panel discussions. A prominent Lebanese intellectual and politician, Samir Frangieh, a Maronite, recalled the “Beirut Spring” of 2000, when Lebanese Muslims and Christians demonstrated against the dictatorship in Syria, saying it was the introduction to today’s “Arab Spring.” Frangieh noted that “the phenomena of individualization [in the Arab world] is fundamental for understanding the unique novelty that the ‘Arab Spring’ is introducing.”

Here are some views expressed about specific topics of the Middle East’s current movements:

Muslim-Christian relations and sectarian tensions: “Christians are not in fear of Muslims but of dictators.” “We Egyptian Copts are carefully watching the changing of the system, afraid of the possibility that the old regime might return in a new form.” “Conflicts in the Muslim world were always political, not sectarian ones.” “Dictators wanted to stop the revolution by calling it sectarian, as in Syria, or tribal in Libya.”

Pluralism and minority rights: “Many speak about pluralism, but don’t work to implement it.” “Only a modern democratic state can guarantee equal rights for all, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Copts, the Druze and the Kurds.” “Pluralism means to communicate, to work together with others.” “We should get rid of prejudice because it is a barrier to pluralism.” “We don’t know each other enough.” “There were Crusades, but we contemporary Middle Eastern Christians are not the successors of the crusaders.” “The term ‘minority’ shouldn’t be mentioned in new constitutions -- all citizens should have equal rights.”

Future of “Arab Spring”: “We need politics to be cleansed of religious influence.” “All political trends [within the framework of the Arab Spring] should be recognized.” “Efforts to return the Arab world to the pre-state era should be prevented.” “We are overcoming the phase of uprisings -- we should now build new, modern and civic states.”

Relations with the West: “The Western approach, political as well as religious, toward our situation is wrong: They must accept that the individual identity in the Middle East is not separate from the religious and social one.” “The West was supporting authoritarian rulers, and now they say they support our revolutions -- if they are sincere, let them support us now to continue, especially economically.”

Surprising statements by al-Azhar professor

One of the most interesting figures at the Sarajevo gathering was Hassan Shafi’e, a professor at al-Azhar University and member of the commission for drafting the new Egyptian constitution. As an activist of the Muslim Brotherhood who spent 10 years in the prisons of Gamal Abdel Nasser, he surprised conference participants by announcing that one of the articles of the future constitution will guarantee refuge and asylum in Egypt “to all exiles in the world.” Here are some of his other remarks: “The revolution in Egypt is a revival of the liberal movement from the 1950s. … We are using today elements from a proposal of the constitution that Nasser shelved. The Jan. 25, 2011 revolution was for us a surprise only by its rapidity and protagonists. … We want to build a secular system on the Islamic principle of ‘shura’ [consultation], more liberal, but not radical ones. … There will be no discrimination on the basis of religion or language and women will be equal to men. … Only after two months of power, President Mohammed Morsi appointed a Copt as his adviser. … An Israeli school was opened in Cairo.”

In his message to participants of this gathering Pope Benedict XVI called for a creation of the alliance of religions for peace and justice, that -- unexpectedly due to the composition of this world religious meeting -- should also include non-believers. The meeting held under the slogan “Living Together is the Future” ended with the signing of an appeal for peace. Before that, prayers for peace were held at various locations, following the traditions of the leading world religions. It was really impressive to see leaders and officials from the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist communities leading prayers and walking together through Sarajevo’s streets before issuing their joint commitment to peace. I respect believers who were following them in that peace procession, but I don’t have great trust in many religious officials’ claims of a commitment to peace, including some who attended the Sarajevo gathering. There were some who gave their blessings to those who in the 1990s killed believers from other religions and nations as well as those who attacked with shells the innocent civilians of this very city of Sarajevo.

Sarajevo, however, survived and it deserves praise expressed earlier this month by many participants of different world faiths. The Community of Sant’Egidio should be particularly thanked for co-sponsoring the peace conference in Sarajevo to mark at the same time the 20th anniversary of the Bosnian Serb siege of the city. Bosnian Cardinal Vinko Puljic offered a mass of reconciliation in Sarajevo’s cathedral, with the Serb Orthodox patriarch in attendance. In a letter announcing the meeting, the cardinal recalled a personal anecdote from that time: “It was the longest siege of the 20th century,” he said. “Four years of violence, suffering, daily bombings. … A particular noise to which my ears became accustomed, so much so that today I am forced to wear an ear device in order to regain hearing lost in those days.”

And Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, although experiencing difficulty walking, attended the peace conference in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and sent a message to a city that he visited during its siege, saying: “Sarajevo, you are right to be very proud of your past comprised of religious tolerance and cultural exchange. … Sarajevo, I tell you: God will judge humanity based on what happened right before your eyes!”

* Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.

Source: Today's Zaman

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