Celebrating Human Fraternity, An Inter-Faith Dialogue Pioneer Should be Remembered

Dr. Aly El-Samman
Pope Francis, right, and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb pose for a photo at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. (Getty)

As the world is facing unprecedented challenges brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, a global action is highly required based on cooperation, solidarity and recognition of all efforts and our common human values. Hence, the United Nations designated February 4 as the International Day of Human Fraternity to promote cultural diversity and inter-faith dialogue, according to a UN resolution adopted in December 2020, and co-sponsored by both Arab countries of Egypt and United Arab Emirates. World Inter-Faith dialogue has gained momentum in recent years after it was launched decades ago, all with the mission of living peacefully together, and capitalizing on our shared values.

Building on cultural diversity and freedom of faith, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for commitment “to do more to promote cultural and religious tolerance, understanding and dialogue. The UN announcement stated the need for raising awareness about different cultures and religions, while reminding of the importance of mutual acceptance and respect. Moreover, it highlighted the necessity of eliminating discrimination and violence, as the UN Secretary said, “Around the world, deep-seated discrimination, acts of intolerance and hate crimes persist against people simply because of their religion or belief, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.”

Earlier this month, The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayyeb hailed the UN designation as it celebrated “a historical world event” held two years ago, that carried a message of peace to all humans, “calling for cooperation and an end to wars, promoting tolerance and harmony, rejecting intolerance, hatred and power politics,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page.

The designation was based on the date of an interfaith declaration signed on February 4, 2019, when both religious Leaders The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayyeb and the Catholic Pope Frances II presented and signed “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” during the Global Inter-Religious Meeting on Human Fraternity held in UAE.

The declaration, the Pope said, was a new page in history of dialogue between Christians and Muslims, asserting the commitment to promote peace in the world based on human fraternity”.

The aim of the declaration was to “call upon ourselves, upon the leaders of the world as well as the architects of international policy and world economy, to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing,” the 2019 document stated.

On the same day, President Abdel Fattah Al Sissi said, “This declaration reminds us of the importance of dialogue and acceptance of others as well as the importance of working together to eradicate racism, combat hate speech, and promote tolerance, justice and equality in order to ensure peace and justice.” 

First attempts at organizing International Inter-faith dialogue was launched by the late Dr. Ali El-Samman, the President of ADIC (International Association for Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue and Peace Education), who was a leading voice for peace and understanding among monotheistic faiths.

“When reading this declaration, I could not help but think of my late husband, Dr. Aly El-Samman, and how happy he would have been by this declaration that consolidated the work he began many years ago,” said Brigitte Lefebvre-ElSamman, Dr. Aly El-Samman’s wife.

Since 1989, the ADIC aimed at promoting the humanitarian values shared by the three Abrahamic religions, by facilitating high-level dialogue among the world's major religious figures and institutions.

Back in April 1994, El-Samman initiated international interfaith dialogue by organizing a meeting in Bern, Switzerland, between Cardinal Franz Koenig, member of the Sacred College at the Vatican and the then-Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Gad El Haq Aly Gad El Haq, thereby affirming this desire of dialogue. Then, in June 1994, El-Samman organized the first conference among the three monotheistic religions at La Sorbonne in Paris.

In 1996, as ADIC President and counselor of Sheikh Al-Azhar, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, El-Samman helped create the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue between Monotheistic Religions, and was appointed as its vice-president, with Sheikh Fawzi El Zefzaf as president. El-Samman and Sheikh El Zefzaf signed a key agreement between the Vatican and Al-Azhar on May 24, 1998, at the Vatican.  This set the stage for the historical first visit of a Catholic pope to Egypt. On February 24, 2000, Pope John Paul II met with Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi at Al-Azhar, lending further substance to the agreement signed in 1998.

“As my late husband used to say, such steps were just ‘the beginning, not the end’ of the long road to promote dialogue, fraternity and peace among the world’s foremost monotheistic religions. The Abu Dhabi declaration was another step down the same road,” said Brigitte Lefebvre-Elsamman.

In his memoir, Dr. El-Samman wrote, “If you don’t have the patience of a saint, you have no business getting involved in interfaith dialogue.”

He would have been proud to see how his efforts have borne fruit, his wife added.