At the suggestion of King Abdullah II of Jordan, on 20 October 2010, the United Nations General Assembly established the first week of February as the annual observance of World Interfaith Harmony Week. It was derived from the concept expressed in the constitution of UNESCO that, “since wars begin in the minds of men (sic), it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”
On 4 February 2020, the General Assembly proclaimed 4 February to be the International Day of Human Fraternity. Occurring as it does during World Interfaith Harmony Week, it is a recognition of an important example of the harmony witnessed exactly one year earlier in the United Arab Emirates. There, Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib, Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Cairo, signed the document entitled, “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”
Both the World Interfaith Harmony Week and the International Day of Human Fraternity reflect what Swiss theologian Hans Küng said at a lecture at the University of California in San Diego in March 1991: “No peace among nations until peace among religions.”
While it is not only unfair but also inaccurate to see religion as the sole or even primary cause of all the conflicts in the world, it is also naïve or disingenuous to overlook the fact that far too many of these conflicts have a religious component. Religion provides powerful symbols that can unite people or unite one people against another. Religion can — sometimes knowingly other times not — be coopted into political or economic conflicts, almost inevitably making those conflicts more intractable. Even now, there has been an increase in sectarian violence in Africa and India, and a rise in anti-Semitism in some countries.
Both observances during the first week of February remind us that it is morally incumbent upon all religions to be instruments of peace and reconciliation on the planet. It is not enough to condemn violence and bigotry. It is not enough to be personally nonviolent. All religions, their leaders and their faithful must work proactively to eliminate violence and religious bigotry from our world.
Both the United Nations and religious leaders around the world recognize this and strive to make religion a force for peace, reconciliation and fraternity and not a force for division and violence. The document “Human Fraternity” is an initial step by the Catholic Church and Sunni Islam, the two largest faith traditions in the world, to make this a reality.
Coming as they do from the United Nations, World Interfaith Harmony Week and the International Day for Human Fraternity call attention every year to the need and obligation for all religions to work together to bring about harmony and human fraternity on a global scale.
These observances are by no means peripheral to the mission of CNEWA. Among the tasks that CNEWA sees as part of its mission are education and dialogue — ecumenical (between Christians) and interfaith (with non-Christian religions). Nor is this something that exists merely on paper. In CNEWA’s “world,” Muslims are often the majority; in India the majority are Hindus, Buddhists and Jains; and in some countries, such as Iraq, there are ancient religions that predate both Christianity and Islam. By caring and providing for the needs of people of all faiths where it works, CNEWA gives practical witness to this annual call not only for harmony between religions, but indeed for practical human fraternity.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.