Grand Imam of Al Azhar calls for religious leaders to set an example of peace

Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb speaks out as Pope Francis makes an historic visit to the UAE

epa07343016 A handout picture provided by the Vatican Media shows Pope Francis (L) shaking hands with Grand Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb (R), the head of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution, as he arrives for a meeting with the members of Muslim Council of Elders at Grand Mosque of Sheik Zayed, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 04 February 2019.  EPA/VATICAN MEDIA HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Religious leaders must set an example if peace and love are to be embraced by their followers, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar told the Global Conference of Human Fraternity on Monday.

This means confronting extremists with courage, including both those who claim to base their actions on religious teachings and those who seek to drive faith completely from public life, he said.

The conference, at the Emirates Palace, was essential to begin opening doors that would achieve peace, coexistence and tolerance for all people, regardless of their faith, Dr Al Tayab said.

That it was taking place in the UAE was a demonstration of the commitment of the country and its rulers to promote what Dr Al Tayeb called the eternal values of tolerance and coexistence.

The two-day Global Conference of Human Fraternity was organised by the Muslim Council of Elders and coincided with the visit to Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic faith.

But its reach has gone far beyond dialogue between just Muslims and Christians. Among those also invited to take part were Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jewish rabbis.

All have expressed a desire to actively work for better relations between different religions. And many will have made new connections not just by listening to the speeches and presentations, but also in the informal interactions over lunch or a coffee break.

The scale of their task was underlined by a survey released during the conference that examined global attitude to religion across the West and the Middle East region.

In several countries, especially in Europe, it showed a widespread belief that Islam was incompatible with the values of their society.

In France and Germany this represented nearly half of those polled, while in the USA and Britain well over one in three said they agreed with the statement that: “There is a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of society in my country.”

Only a minority in the YouGov poll said they felt the reverse was true - that there was no conflict with Islam.

In Britain, this was one in four, while the percentage fell to just one in five in Germany and 17 per cent in the US.

Asked if they were worried about the rise of extremism linked to Islam, the numbers were even higher, rising to 72 per cent in France and Germany, 66 per cent in Britain and just over half of Americans.

In a stark contrast, the numbers were more than reversed in the Middle East, where an overwhelming majority said they did not feel Christianity posed any threat to Islamic values.

In the UAE only 13 per cent said they supported the view of a fundamental clash with Christianity, while the number fell to just three per cent in Egypt, where over half felt Christian and Muslim values were compatible.

The concept of a “clash of civilisations” was challenged by one of the main speakers on Monday, who said such conflicts were not based on ideas but ignorance.

Irina Bokova is the former Director General of Unesco and now honorary president of the Alliance for Hope International, a global organisation seeking to end violence and abuse against women and children through social change.

Intolerance and prejudice were due to a lack of education rather supposed differing values, Dr Bokova said.

She added that she believed peaceful coexistence could be achieved by “dialogue and creativity in all its forms through exploring new opportunities for creating connections between people that we can prove that diversity is our strength".

The destruction of religious sites as the result of extremism that had been witnessed by Unesco was a tragedy for all faiths, she said. “We all suffer. We are all diminished.”

“We need understand and knowledge about each other,” Dr Bokava added. “Many of the answers come through education. We can combat stereotypes and prejudice.”