In a powerful speech to an international conference for peace in Cairo on April 28, Pope Francis pulled no punches as he called on Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Egypt and throughout the Middle East to join in building “a new civilization of peace” by declaring together “a firm and clear ‘no’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion and in the name of God” and to “affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”
His words drew applause.
They applauded again when he told them that “what is needed are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction.”
Pope Francis pulled no punches as he called on Christian and Muslim religious leaders to join in building “a new civilization of peace.”
Speaking in the conference hall of Al Azhar, the most prestigious center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, at the invitation of its grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, to an audience of some 300 religious leaders, professors and scholars from Egypt and several other countries in the region, Francis reminded them that “religion is not meant only to unmask evil, it has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, today perhaps more than ever before.”
After his plane touched down at Cairo International Airport at 2 p.m., Francis drove straight to the presidential palace for a formal welcome and then drove to the Al Azhar conference center in this city of 10 million people in a normal car, under extraordinary security measures and fears for his safety.
He was welcomed at Al Azhar by the grand imam, whom he had met in the Vatican last November. The two leaders conversed together in private for 20 minutes before addressing the conference.
Pope Francis: “Religion is not meant only to unmask evil, it has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace.”
The grand imam spoke first and after warmly welcoming the pope, he asked all present to stand in silence for one minute for Christians and Muslims who have been killed in terrorist attacks. He also recalled those Christian and Muslim faithful who were killed in places of worship. He called for an alliance of all organizations that work for peace. He affirmed that “no religion” can be classified as “terrorist”—neither Christianity, Judaism or Islam. He said Islam cannot be said to be “terrorist” because “a small minority misinterpret some of its sayings and killed people and terrorize the innocent.” He accused “some parties,” whom he did not name, “of financing these persons and groups” and denounced the arms trade “as the principal cause of our problems today.”
When he finished speaking, Francis embraced him, drawing applause.
They applauded Pope Francis again when, opening his address broadcast live on Egypt’s national television network, he thanked “my brother” the grand imam for the invitation to speak.
Francis’ speech was mainly addressed to those in Egypt and the wider Middle East, but at one point he appeared to go beyond this region to include Europe, the United States and other places (without naming any of them) when he remarked that “it is disconcerting to note that, as the concrete realities of people’s lives are ignored in favor of obscure machinations, demagogic forms of populism are on the rise.”
Pope Francis: Declarations are not enough “to prevent conflicts and build peace.”
These forms of populism, he said, “certainly do not help to consolidate peace and stability. No incitement to violence will guarantee peace, and every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is, in reality, a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence.” His words again drew applause from an audience that included Coptic Pope Tawadros II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as well as the former interim president of Egypt, Adly Mansour (2013-14), the current minister for foreign affairs.
They showed their agreement, too, when he insisted that declarations are not enough “to prevent conflicts and build peace. It is essential that we spare no effort in eliminating situations of poverty and exploitation, where extremism more easily takes root, and in blocking the flow of money and weapons destined to those who provoke violence.” Moreover, he said, “it is necessary to stop the proliferation of arms that, if they are produced and traded, will sooner or later be used.”
Though aimed at a region-wide audience, his words were also relevant here in Egypt, where 27 percent of the population live below the poverty line, youth unemployment is high and fundamentalist groups receive funds for social programs from Saudi Arabia, a regime that promotes the Wahabi doctrine that many believe has much responsibility in fostering Islamic extremism.
Francis was applauded when he described violence as “the denial of every authentic religiosity” and declared that “as religious leaders we are called to unmask the violence that dresses itself with presumed sacredness, drawing on the absolutizing of egoisms instead of authentic openness to the Absolute.”
Pope Francis: “As religious leaders we are called to unmask the violence that dresses itself with presumed sacredness.”
He recalled that it was on Mount Sinai in Egypt that God gave the Ten Commandments, at the center of which is the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” He said religions are called, especially today, “to implement this imperative” and “to exclude every absolutizing that justifies forms of violence.”
Religion is “not part of the problem, but it is part of the solution,” he said, and “as religious leaders we are called to denounce the violations against human dignity and against human rights, to bring to light the attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion and to condemn them as an idolatrous falsification of God,” who “is the God of peace.”
Francis spoke in Italian, but his words were translated simultaneously into Arabic. Emphasizing the importance of dialogue, such as that being conducted together by the Holy See and Al Azhar, he declared that “in the field of dialogue, especially interreligious dialogue, we are called to walk together, in the conviction that the future of all depends also on the encounter between religions and culture.”
He told the conference that in dialogue it is necessary “to educate to respectful openness and to sincere dialogue with the other, recognizing the fundamental rights and freedoms, especially that of religion, constitutes the best way to build the future together, to be constructors of a civilization.”
At this critical moment in history, Francis said, “the only alternative to a civilization of encounter is the incivility of confrontation” and “to truly contrast the barbarities of the one who breathes on hate and incites to violence, one must accompany and bring to maturity generations that respond to the incendiary logic of evil with the patient growth of good.”
He emphasized the importance of educating the young “because there will not be peace without an adequate education of future generations.”He recalled how in the past “different faiths met and different cultures mixed” and recognized the “importance of joining together for the common good” and declared that “alliances of this kind are needed more than ever today.”
He concluded by saying that religious and political leaders as well as “those who are responsible for information” are called “by God, by history and by the future to start, each in their own field, processes of peace.”
The audience applauded when he concluded, and then got to their feet and applauded even more when he embraced the grand imam.
One of those present at the conference was Bishop Basilio Yaldo of the Chaldean Patriarchate in Baghdad, who had come with the Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako for the conference. He told America that he hoped that by his visit “the courageous Pope Francis would help bring hope and peace to Egypt, Iraq and to the whole of the Middle East.”
An Egyptian imam, Mustafa Wafi, from Cairo and Al Azhar, who was in the hall when the pope spoke, told America that he liked the pope’s speech “very, very much.” For his part, Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan told America that he considered the pope’s speech “very good, very appropriate, and easily understood.” He believes it will also help Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria.