Religion is one of the factors that make up personal and group identities. The question is how can religious identity be saved from being misused to legitimize immoral and inhumane behavior, and be used instead to motivate people to strive for peace, justice, and tolerance in everyday life situations.
Today, we do not live in a separate world of our own. We do not live in silos. We see that within a relatively short period of history, the telephone, radio, film, television, and, more recently, computers, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and the World Wide Web are drastically altering our perceptions of time, space, and each other.
However, these tools of modern technology that make people closer in the communications sense, do not live to up to their much-needed potential to make people across boundaries closer in the sense of creating decent human relationships. We see that we continue to be far from a peaceful resolution to centuries of bloody ethnic and religious tensions and conflicts. The genocidal and tragic events in Srebrenica of 1995, in New York and Washington of 2001, in Madrid of 2004, in London of 2005, and in Oslo of 2011 are the culmination of human madness and irrationality.
Indeed, the real issue here is morality, whether it be faith in God, or human consciousness, or man's rational ability to differentiate between true and false, right and wrong, good and evil; or, whether it be morality that is based on pure human feeling, taste, urge, wish or whim.
A being who does not know automatically what is true or false, cannot know automatically what is right or wrong, what is good for him or evil. He is not exempt from the laws of reality, he is a specific organism of a specific nature that requires specific actions to sustain his life. He cannot achieve his survival by arbitrary means nor by random motions nor by blind urges nor by chance nor by whim. That which his survival requires is set by his nature and is not open to his choice. What is open to his choice is only whether he will discover it or not. He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see... Man is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction. Man is the only living species that has the power to act as his own destroyer—and that is the way he has acted through most of his history.
---Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, 1964, pp. 23-24.
Religious leaders are important factors in shaping group identities as well as individual and collective morality. Therefore, they must work together to stop man "to act as his own destroyer." Religious leaders must come together as never before and take an active role in making an interfaith dialogue with global peace and security as its goal. Among many global initiatives towards peace brought about by world religious leaders that I have participated in, three deserve our mention.
First, the Muslim initiative of the Common Word. It came on October 13 2006, as a result of Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg address of September 13 2006. Somewhat surprised by the pope's remark about the Prophet Muhammad, 38 Muslim authorities and scholars from around the world, representing all denominations and schools of thought, joined together to deliver an answer to the pope in the spirit of open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding. In their Open Letter to the Pope, Muslim scholars from every branch of Islam spoke with one voice about the true teachings of Islam.
On October 13, 2007, a year after the Open Letter, Muslims expanded their message. In A Common Word Between Us and You, 138 Muslim senior scholars (ulama), as well as Muslim academicians, came together to declare common ground between Christianity and Islam. Every major Muslim country or region in the world was represented in this message, which is addressed to the leaders of all the world's churches, and indeed to all Christians everywhere. And the Christian global leaders responded positively to this Muslim initiative.
Second, the Muslim-Christian common action in Nigeria from May 22–26, 2012, which was organized by the Royal Jordanian Aal Al Bayt Institute (RABIIT) and the World Council of Churches (WCC). This action was proposed in reaction to the numerous incidents of fierce inter-communal strife that affected the lives of Nigerians during 2000-2012. The idea of the joint Christian-Muslim delegation in response to situations of violence involving both religious groups emerged initially from the A Common Word global Muslim-Christian Initiative of October 2007 and then from a proposal made in November 2010, when a group of some 60 Christian and Muslim leaders met in Geneva, Switzerland at the WCC Headquarters and forged an agreement to work more cooperatively in situations of conflict.
The objectives of the Christian-Muslim common action in Nigeria were as follows:
1. To fact-find and investigate first-hand, impartially and credibly, the situation on the ground in Nigeria, and the various factors that have led to the present tensions.
2. To express clearly to both the political and religious leadership in Nigeria the concern and anxiety of the international community about the current situation.
3. To demonstrate an international model of Muslims and Christians working together in an inter-religious engagement aimed at fostering peace and harmony between people of different religions.
4. To identify areas or projects where religious institutes, persons, texts, messages, or projects can help ameliorate the situation in Nigeria.
A well-documented report issued by the international Christian-Muslim delegation that visited Nigeria pointed to an inadequate depth of understanding of both Christianity and Islam within and without these two religions, and lack of knowledge and information on a popular level, particularly in local languages, of the scriptural-based condemnations of violence and terrorism in both Christianity and Islam.
At the end of the Nigeria visit, the international Muslim-Christian delegation issued a joint press release, saying:
We hope by our visit to demonstrate an international model of Muslims and Christians working together in inter-religious engagement aimed at fostering peace and harmony between people of different religions. We bear witness that we believe that both Christianity and Islam are religions which long for peace, and that in both our faiths love of God and love of our neighbor must belong together.
And third, the inter-religious International Meetings that started in the mid-80’s, as an initiative of the Community of Sant’Egidio, with the aim of promoting mutual understanding and dialogue among religions, in a horizon of peace. The Community of Sant’Egidio has continued living the spirit of the Assisi World Day of Prayer, proposed by John Paul II in 1986, by accepting the pope’s final invitation of that historical meeting: "Let’s keep spreading the message of Peace and living the spirit of Assisi."
Since that moment, through a network of friendship between representatives of different faiths and cultures from more than 60 countries, the Community has promoted a pilgrimage of peace, which has had several stages in various European and Mediterranean cities year after year. The most recent of these was held in Sarajevo. This was a good occasion for the Vrhbosna Archbishop Vinko Cardinal Puljic to remind the world that:
These days, specifically April 5, 2012— Holy Thursday—mark the 20th anniversary of the tragic war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and of the dramatic siege of the city of Sarajevo.
It was the longest siege of the 20th century, from April 1992 to February 1996. Four years of violence, suffering, of 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 restore my hearing lost in those days.
Twenty years is still too short to narrate what happened in Sarajevo, which has always been a city of exemplary co-existence between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But it is also a city of pain and conflict. In a way, Sarajevo encompasses the beginning and the end of every war of the 20th century. It was in Sarajevo, in fact, that the first World War originated. Sarajevo was the theater of the last tragic conflict of the 1900's. Sarajevo, city of suffering and hope. In his historic visit in 1997, Pope John Paul II called Sarajevo the "Jerusalem of Europe"…
Hence, the Sarajevo Appeal for Peace that was signed on September 11, 2012 by a great number of world religious leaders from China, Japan, Asia, Africa, Australia, America, Europe, and the Balkans is worthwhile reading again and again to remind us of the importance of the role of religious leaders for a global peace and security.
Indeed, this Sarajevo Appeal for Peace is to remind us of the importance of the peace of Sarajevo, which is known to be the starting place for wars at both the beginning and the end of the 20th century. May God save Sarajevo from any more wars and bless it to be the heart of peace for the whole world, as we read this Sarajevo Appeal for Peace:
Men and women of different religions, we have gathered at the invitation of the Community of Sant'Egidio and of the Islamic, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish communities of Sarajevo. We have gathered in this land, beautiful and wounded by the last war fought in Europe. Many people in Sarajevo remember the sorrows of that conflict. Many people in Sarajevo remind us all that war is a great evil and it leaves a poisoned legacy behind. With all our strength, we must avoid sliding into the dreadful spiral of hatred, violence, and war. Neighbors must never find themselves fighting against each other because they belong to different religions or ethnic groups. Never again in this land! Never again in this world!
We asked ourselves whether coexistence with people of different religions or ethnic groups bears in itself the seeds of hatred and violence. No, this must not be. Even though, unfortunately, too many countries suffer because of violence, war, and insecurity. In our times different people increasingly become closer to one another geographically. However, this is not enough. We need to become close to each other intimately. We need to do so spiritually, though our differences in terms of religion remain.
We are different. But our unanimous conviction is this: living together is possible, all over the world, and it bears much fruit. It is possible in Sarajevo and everywhere. The future must be prepared with responsibility. And religions have a great responsibility in this respect. In these days in Sarajevo we have lived the grace of dialogue and seen how to build the future.Today, however, in a time of economic crisis, the temptation to withdraw into oneself is strong, or even to blame other peoples for one’s problems, whether past or present. A people then turn into an alien, even into an enemy. Dangerous cultures of resentment, hatred, and fear grow. But no people are ever an enemy: all peoples have suffered; they all have a good soul! They can all live together!
Religions have a great task: they speak of God to the heart of human beings and liberate them from hatred, prejudice, and fear, opening them up to love. They change men and women from within. Religions can teach every man, every woman, and every people the art of living together through dialogue, mutual esteem, respect of freedom and difference, thus creating a more human world. Because we are all equal, and we are all different.
We need to face our difficulties with a new courage. Turning our eyes far ahead, we must create in dialogue a language made of sympathy, friendship, and compassion. This common language will enable us to talk to each other, beholding the beauty of differences and the value of equality. Living together in peace is God’s will. Hatred, division, violence, massacres and genocides do not come from God. Let us ask God in prayer for the gift of peace. Yes, may God grant the world, and us all, the marvelous gift of peace!
Yes, the religious leaders must preach that peace is good and that war is bad; that loving your neighbor is good and that hating your neighbor is bad!
The art of living together and the gift of peace can only come about if we all embrace the common word among us and commit to it through common action in everything we do.