The Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi was nothing short of a cultural and religious potpourri on Monday. Men from all walks of life and faiths who had come together at the monument to Sheikh Zayed for the historic signing of a pact to promote world peace.
In a landmark event, the head of the Catholic Church Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, put their signatures to the Human Fraternity Document championing of brotherhood and peace among all people.
Even before they delivered their speeches and the official signing of the document, optimism was tangible among the religious participants, with some even calling the Global Conference on Human Fraternity in the UAE capital a landmark event.
"The tone has been very warm and welcoming, and very convincing that one should be part of this," said Archbishop Felix Machado from India, as the last guests filtered through into the seating area. "There is genuine manifestation of willingness to come out and dialogue … we were waiting for the fruits of dialogue and here they are."
The colourful array of headwear of the guests around him, seated comfortably on long white sofas, underlined the diversity of the gathering. Row upon row of elegant ghutras gave way to colourful kufis, turbans and purple skullcaps. Behind the guests, a line of tiny chimneys filled the air with the incense.
At 6.30pm, as the last rays of light began to fade, Pope Francis and Dr Al Tayeb were greeted by a gentle round of applause. The two religious leaders entered the amphitheatre alongside Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The Vice President delivered the opening speech.
“It gives me great pleasure to welcome Pope Francis and his eminence Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb to the United Arab Emirates – the country of peaceful coexistence, multiplicity and diversity,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. “Today we celebrate the signing of a very important document of fraternity,” he told the gathering.
In a bid to cement the event’s running theme, Dr Al Tayeb underscored the similarities between Christianity and Islam. “To my fellow citizens in the West I say: maintain positive integration in your community … maintain your religious identity while respecting the laws of your community.”
Dr Al Tayeb, a former president of Al Azhar University, also serves as chairman of the Muslim Council of Elders. Pope Francis met the members of the Council of Elders in private at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque earlier on Monday. Following the imam’s speech, it was the pontiff’s turn to deliver his.
Walking slowly, and flanked by one of his personal secretaries, Monsignor Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, Francis made his way towards the stage.
“Salamu aleykum,” the pope greeted those gathered, his white cassock swaying in the evening breeze. In a speech that touched on numerous pertinent subjects – including the importance of dialogue and justice and the dangers of war – Pope Francis stressed on fraternity and the need to belong to a worldwide family.
“Religions can’t give up on building bridges between people and culture,” he said. “No violence can be justified in the name of religion.”
The breeze grew stronger and the night colder as the pope continued to speak and the significance of the event sank in – a document of great importance had just been signed in Abu Dhabi, under the watchful eye of the world.
We must “want peace, promote peace, be instruments of peace,” Pope Francis reminded the audience. “That’s what we’re here for.”