By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK — Pope Francis’s landmark agreement with the Muslim world, signed earlier this year during his visit to Abu Dhabi, was heralded at the annual prayer service on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly as “an antidote to hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism.”
“The Declaration is an appeal to all people of goodwill to put aside particular and egotistic interests, be they individual, national or continental, to break down the walls in our minds and to cross the borders in order to promote and build up justice and peace,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, who serves as the Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia and participated in the pope’s visit to the region.
Bishop Hinder’s remarks came during his meditation for the annual prayer service, which was timed to coincide with the opening of the 74th session of the General Assembly and was attended by a standing room crowd of some 85 U.N. diplomats, 60 religious leaders, and 110 NGO leaders.
The prayer service, which was held at the Church of the Holy Family, the U.N.’s Catholic parish, was attended by U.N. General Secretary António Guterres and was hosted by Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the papal representative to the United Nations and the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See. In February, Pope Francis signed the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” along with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azha, who represents Sunni Muslims around the globe.
The document, in Bishop Hinder’s summation, states that “Authentic teachings of religions must always ‘defend the values of mutual understanding, human fraternity, and harmonious coexistence’” and that “the East and West have to find a convergence of mutual collaboration on the basis of their complementary values.”
“The Declaration points at certain urgent topics which can be addressed only if religions are doing their duty properly and if the respective societies, their governments and the international community as a whole are working together – and this is where your own deliberations in the coming days must lead: in making provisions for protecting the family as the fundamental nucleus of society and humanity; providing right education for children, avoiding everything that could lead people to extremism and violence,” he added.
Earlier this month, the pontiff’s close Jewish collaborator, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, told The Tablet that he hopes the Abu Dhabi agreement will have the same effect as Nostra aetate, a 1965 Vatican II document, which provided a reset for Jewish-Catholic relations.
“I feel that it’s the first time in history that Catholicism came so close and so committed with the Muslim world in order to produce a great commitment to peace. This is an answer against all those people from all sides that are using constantly a language of hate and violence,” Rabbi Skorka said of the “Document on Human Fraternity.”
During his remarks on Monday, Bishop Hinder said that Pope Francis’s February visit to the United Arab Emirates – which marked the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula – was reminiscent of 800 years ago where, in Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi crossed the battle lines of Muslim and Christian armies to meet Sultan Melek-el-Khamil.
“Both, Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis on one hand, and Sultan Melek-el-Khamil and Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, on the other hand, had to cross the real and ideological frontlines in order to meet the other and to arrive at mutual respect,” said Bishop Hinder.
He went on to note that the Abu Dhabi agreement serves as an invitation to model that sort of engagement in the world today among all people of good will.
“The Declaration speaks on behalf of the countless victims of violence and war; of those who are tortured and made to flee for the land of their birth; of all the innocent human beings that are killed; of the poor, the destitute, the marginalized and those who are most in need of help; of the victims of corruption and fundamentalism, people who hunger for peace and justice,” he told the international community.
Drawing on his own experience of spending 15 years in the region, Bishop Hinder said that while the Declaration is a sign of progress, much work remains. In particular, he singled out war-torn Yemen “where millions of people are longing for justice and peace.”
“Who will have the courage to break the vicious circle of violence?” he asked.
Bishop Hinder closed by once more turning to the example of St. Francis of Assisi.
“On this vigil of the opening of the Assembly, let us make a humble, joint and earnest prayer to the Father of the universe in the spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi: ‘Make me an instrument of your peace!,’” he concluded.