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From the Vatican to al-Azhar: Dialogue and Rationalism in Face of Terror and Extremism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Pope Francis meets al-Azhar’s Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb in Egypt. (AFP)

Cairo – The visit of Pope Francis I to the Grand Azhar in Egypt over the weekend came at a time of raging extremism. The meeting between the pontiff and Sheikh al-Azhar Dr. Ahmed al-Tayyeb can be seen as a humanitarian confrontation against extremism.

The image of the two religious leaders meeting reminded observers of the times of ideologically motivated wars that were launched in the Middle Ages between the East and West and between Muslims and Christians.

The Pope’s visit to Egypt is reminiscent of that of Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Order of Friars Minor, who visited the country in 1219. He came to the land to preach peace and reject the Crusades that had pitted Christian against Muslim. He met with Sultan al-Kamil al-Ayyoubi in what was seen as one of the earliest meetings between the two religions.

Will Pope Francis’s modern day visit hold similar significance to the one 800 years ago?

We should recall French novelist Andre Marlaux, who once said: “The 21st century will be religious or it will not be at all.” There are some facts that we have to address to understand the major role clerics play in modern times.

There has been a marked difference in paths taken by religion in the East and West in the post-WWII era. In the West, religion took the back foot to modern technology, economy, capitalism and science. In the East, and for various reasons, a backwards way of thinking took over. This way of thought was bolstered by globalization and the fear of meeting the other.

Amid the emergence of the far right and the far left, the real purpose of religion appears to have been lost. It has instead been replaced with the banners of war and theories of confrontation.

Religion in its essence however allows man to grant his life meaning and a purpose from the time he is born to the time he dies. This concept of religion has started to gain ground. Will its true meaning be able to stand firmly against dark fundamentalism?

German thinker Heinz-Joachim Fischer said that religion can create a conviction born out of dialectic debates. Convictions, whether they are theoretical or practical, can be born of a person’s internal religious leanings. These convictions can give way to the will to live. This will was honed during the age of enlightenment and later during the scientific advances of the past two-and-a-half centuries.

Religions therefore begin to reemerge as strengths and convictions that birth and nurture personalities away from fundamentalism.

Pope Francis viewed his recent trip to Egypt as that of friendship and appreciation to the people of Egypt and the region. Friendship is the way to pure hearts that seek coexistence away from isolation and eliminating the other that extremists feed on, he added ahead of his visit.

We can say that the purpose of the pontiff’s visit differs from that of his predecessor 800 years ago. This should perhaps be a lesson to all of us Muslims in the East because the self-criticism that the Catholic Church had carried out in the past led it to produce advanced theses and visions that have been marked by all-encompassing humanitarianism.

The Islamic world is now pressed to follow in the footsteps of the enlightened Christians of the past.

The enlightenment of the Christians was no doubt met by some extremist voices of dissent from within, but the voices of modernity and moderation were able to overcome them in order to reach the real purpose of dialogue with the self and with the other.

Pope Francis’ visit came to defy the aims of those who bombed the churches in Tanta and Alexandria weeks earlier. He sought to defy the “forces of hatred” and the cancellation of the trip would have been a victory for the forces of evil.

The visit should serve as an opportunity to clear the dust off ties between East and West, especially between Islam and Christianity, and allow them to confront fundamentalism that is threatening to fatally cripple these ties and any prospect of reconciliation in the future.

The meetings between the world’s religious leaders are not required to produce jurisprudential and theological understandings, but they should agree that the future of the world hinges on different cultures and religious dialogue between them.