Today, 4 February, the world observes the first International Day of Human Fraternity, proclaimed by the U.N. General Assembly. This day is an attempt to respond to several things. The very use of the word “fraternity” harkens back to “Fratelli tutti,” the most recent encyclical of Pope Francis, issued on 4 October. The encyclical, in turn, refers to the “Document on Human Fraternity, signed on this day in 2019, by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar.
The choice of 4 February is exceptionally fortuitous since it is not only the day the “Document on Human Fraternity” was signed, but it also falls during the U.N. World Interfaith Harmony Week, which occurs every year during the first week of February. A week dedicated to interfaith harmony was first proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan during the 65th U.N. General Assembly on 23 September 2010. On 10 October the same year, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan formally presented the motion to the U.N. General Assembly and it was unanimously accepted.
World Interfaith Harmony Week was in response to an amazing document entitled “A Common World,” published on 13 October 2007 and originally signed by 138 Muslim leaders from around the world. The breadth of the signatories was stunning. Almost every possible form of Islam was represented. It was unprecedented to see Sunnis, Shiites, Salafi, Sufi and many other Muslim sects and groups sign a common document. Many of these groups are not normally in communication with each other. Some, indeed, are at times hostile to each other. Since the appearance of the original document, hundreds of other Muslim leaders have signed it.
Summarizing a work of this importance and breadth is always a risky thing. However, one paragraph seems to encapsulate the purpose and challenge of the document:
Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second-largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55 percent of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus, our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.
Taken together, all of this provides us with a challenge and hope. The challenge is that interfaith harmony and human fraternity are not merely “nice things to have.” They are critical to the very survival of the planet. When the two largest religions cannot get along, the security of everyone is threatened.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that rugged, go-it-on-your-own individualism is a not only a chimera, but it is also a foolish and dangerous chimera. Even if human beings — and especially human beings of faith — were ever able to live in often hostile isolation from each other, that is simply no longer the case. COVID-19 was able to conquer the globe in about two months. In the familiar phrase, “We are in this together,” the word “we” has taken on a new, global and existential significance.
The challenge is daunting. However, the alternative is simply unacceptable— to say nothing of unworkable.
However, the two observances and three documents provide us with tremendous hope. Religious leaders are not only beginning to realize the challenge, but they are also attempting to encounter the challenge in new, creative and courageous ways in order to motivate millions of believers to work together in a new way for the good of us all.
That is indeed cause to take World Interfaith Harmony Week and the International Day of Human Fraternity very seriously.
Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb both offered a special message for this historic day. You can watch the two messages below. Read more about how the pope marked this occasion at this link.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.