The cross : What did the Abu Dhabi declaration represent at the time?
Michel Younès: In 2019, the document itself constituted a prophetic cry: to speak of “human brotherhood” in these terms, in a document signed jointly by the head of the Catholic Church and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, with an inclusive “we”, it was an event. This had never happened before. Until then, Catholics spoke to Muslims, Muslims spoke to Christians. But each time, one party addressed another. However, in 2019, two senior officials speak for the first time together, in the name of their faith in a single creator, and refer to their mutual sources and traditions to reflect the urgency of addressing (each other) as brothers.
What was the ambition of this text?
MY: It was about getting away from the power relations always present in an explicit or implicit way. The context was very linked to Daesh, this Islamist group which killed, in the name of Islam, Christians and Muslims who did not conform to its doctrine. The 2019 appeal strongly affirmed that extremism is a deviation from the teachings of religions. He recalled that Islam and Christianity prohibit murder in the name of the sacredness of life, and call for people to live as brothers.
How was it received at the time of signing?
MY: In some circles, this was not easy. The Catholic Church, for around twenty years, has been very firm towards any so-called “relativist” theology, as shown in the declaration Dominus Iesus, signed in 2000 by Joseph Ratzinger, at the time prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. Some took the opportunity to say that speaking of a common faith in a creator God would be relativism. Now if the expression of faith is shared, this does not mean that the theological act of faith is the same. It was necessary to support its reception so as not to fall into sterile debates.
On the Muslim side, the question of the status of Al-Azhar was further raised, since the great imam in Islam is not the equivalent of the pope: he does not represent all Sunni Muslims. Some Muslims therefore did not take this document as a declaration that binds them.
From February 4, you are organizing an international congress to evaluate the reception of this document today. What limits, what fruits do you see five years later?
MY: I notice, in theological research groups, that we are mobilizing more the notion of “brother” to look at others according to the human dignity that this status confers on them. But we also see that the notion of brotherhood is sometimes not enough: in the Bible, Cain and Abel are brothers, and yet one kills the other. So of course, we can call ourselves brothers, but that does not remove competition or exclusion.
We must work on the fact that fraternity is a foundation – because we have the same father and, therefore, the same dignity – but which requires a meeting to revisit our wounded memories and work together to reduce injustices, support the poor, and take care of the planet. We become brothers not by remaining in a sort of face-to-face situation that maintains competition, but by putting ourselves side by side to move forward together.
Today, don’t the phenomena of withdrawal in Europe, or even the war in Gaza, put the scope of this declaration into perspective?
MY: In the current context, Daesh is less present but religion is still involved in numerous geopolitical conflicts, and we are once again in a very tense context in the Middle East. What can it mean to speak of “brotherhood” when relationships are hurt, bruised, desperate? When we no longer see the other as a brother but as an enemy?
Rather than putting things into perspective, I see on the contrary the urgency of putting fraternity back at the heart, because we clearly see what happens when it is absent. This is the other side of the coin: each time the other is not treated as a brother, there is a real risk of exclusion and war. Basically, reconciled fraternity is like health: we become aware of it when it is no longer there. We may ask ourselves what is the point of fraternity. But the question is rather: what becomes of the world without it?
An international congress in Abu Dhabi
Organized by the Pluriel university platform, the “Islam and Fraternity” congress brings together international researchers in Abu Dhabi from February 4 to 7 to measure the impact of “Document on human fraternity” in relations between Christians and Muslims around the world. They will approach its reception from a socio-legal point of view, by examining the question of minority citizenship, but also from a geopolitical point of view, through the role of religions in conflicts, and finally from a theological angle. The objective is thus to explore the transformations necessary to promote universal human fraternity in the social, political and theological domains.