DUBAI: Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, delivered a message of hope and tolerance during a recent meeting at the Vatican with the judging committee of the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity 2022.
“We have to maintain and sustain” the path of human fraternity, he told the committee at its Oct. 6 gathering, which took place less than two months before nominations are due to close for this year’s award on Dec. 1.
The award was created to build on the historic Feb. 4, 2019, meeting in Abu Dhabi between Pope Francis and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
Their meeting, which marked the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, culminated in the co-signing of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, also known as the Abu Dhabi declaration.
It was born of a fraternal discussion between the two religious leaders to guide others in advancing a “culture of mutual respect,” which Francis later described as “no mere diplomatic gesture, but a reflection born of dialogue and common commitment.”
The document led to the creation of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity and the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity under the patronage of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
The award, now in its third edition, is named in honor of Sheikh Mohammed’s late father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, founder of the UAE. It is an independent global prize launched in recognition of those making a profound contribution to human progress and peaceful coexistence.
The 2021 prize was jointly awarded to Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, and French-Moroccan activist Latifa Ibn Ziaten, founder of the Imad Association for Youth and Peace, who, after losing her son to an act of terrorism, transformed her sorrow into outreach to young people.
Among the award’s judging committee are Mahamadou Issoufou, former president of Niger and winner of the 2020 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, and Jose Ramos-Horta, former president of East Timor.
Also on the committee are Judge Mohamed Abdelsalam, secretary-general of the Higher Committee on Human Fraternity and co-author of the Document on Human Fraternity, and Leah Pisar, president of the Aladdin Project.
“It was an extraordinary gathering, and the meeting really gave me hope at a moment when we need hope,” Pisar told Arab News following her meeting with Pope Francis.
“We are at a critical juncture in human history, and we have no choice but to seize it because humanity could really go one way or the other if we are not vigilant. I see this declaration as a very bold and courageous call to action.”
The Aladdin Project is an international NGO that was launched by the late French President Jacques Chirac and several other heads of state to promote rapprochement of cultures and the use of lessons from history to overcome hate and extremism. It has a partnership with UNESCO.
Pisar said the fact that the award is overseen by the pope and the grand imam of Al-Azhar gives it immense credibility, and the force, depth, and resonance necessary to make the public and community leaders sit up and listen.
“I am the only Jewish member of this jury and was received very warmly,” Pisar said. “I felt embraced and welcomed, and this is something very important because it highlights the fact that everybody who is a part of this understands the term ‘brothers and sisters’ — we all pray to the same God, there is a common humanity and far more that unites us than sets us apart.”
Despite their religious differences, the committee’s spiritual and intellectual leadership is a “federation of the open-minded voices of all cultures,” which, in essence, stand for broadly similar values and can learn a lot from one another, Pisar said.
“We are not necessarily going to agree on everything, but we have to understand where we are all coming from. And if we can have the courage and open-mindedness to do that, then we are going to find more and more common ground and foster tolerance, and we are in dire need of tolerance.”
The US is emerging from a “hideous” period of hatred, she said, whereby the rhetoric of the past four years pitted people against one another.
Pisar’s aim is to ensure such negativity is not allowed to fester. To do so, the Aladdin Project champions tolerance through different cultural exchanges and educational initiatives.
From youth programs focusing on sports to annual summer schools that bring together students from 70 partner universities, the Aladdin Project offers people from different cultures an opportunity to get to know one another, to learn to respect their differences, and to develop a common understanding.
“I believe that’s a powerful way of doing things,” Pisar said. “It’s about exchanging with and listening to others. Since I was elected president of Project Aladdin four years ago, I’ve met extraordinary people in different countries, and I want to learn from them. If we can just stop and listen sometimes, we’ll go a long way.”
The Aladdin Project has published several books in Arabic and Farsi covering topics ranging from history to literature. One new text on religion, titled “Know the Religion of Thy Neighbour,” was written by senior clerics from the three monotheistic “Abrahamic” religions - Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
The book serves as a tool for theology students at the religious schools of the three faiths to learn about other belief systems directly, instead of through the strict prism of their own doctrine. The book, currently available in French, is now being translated into Arabic, English, Italian and German.
“We are hopeful it’s something that will get out as a method of teaching,” Pisar said. “There’s a lot to be done in the world of tolerance education.
“We’re also working on early childhood education programs on how to open the eyes of K-6 (Kindergarten through sixth grade) age children. I have a six-year-old son and I know, from personal experience, that parents struggle with explaining certain dark chapters of history and human behavior to their children.”
The Aladdin Project’s overarching objective is to counter all kinds of hatred and bigotry, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, because “we are all in the same boat,” she said.
The Abu Dhabi Declaration was a milestone event in interfaith relations, but Pisar believes it is only a symbolic first step on the road towards building a world of greater religious and cultural tolerance.
“If the answer was simple, the problem would have been solved,” she said. “We each bring our part and my mission and the mission of this group is to bring one brick or one stone to this edifice.”
To that end, she says, only dialogue, human fraternity, and respect will make coexistence and tolerance possible.
“We have no choice but to act,” Pisar said. “When I meet people who want to make a difference, I find optimism. We have tools, like technology, and there’s a lot to do, but we have to not only believe we can do it but really plow forward in concrete ways.”
Having the blessings of major religious leaders and institutions shows people they are not alone and that there are influential backers sharing messages that truly resonate, she said.
The 2019 declaration, according to her, is a courageous and essential document that should become as inclusive and all-encompassing as possible, so that all faiths and cultures feel they can relate to it.
“Here we have two leaders representing different faiths, who have agreed to sign a common text in the knowledge that the importance of it was bigger than the differences that might set them apart,” Pisar said.
“What strikes me is that the extremists make a lot of noise and the moderates don’t. It’s time for moderates from different cultures and religions to pool their energies and start making more constructive noise. In this way, we will make important strides forward.”
The winner of the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity 2022 will be announced on Feb. 4, 2022.