The saint and the sultan… after eight centuries

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The saint and the sultan… after eight centuries

By Fr. Dr. Rif'at Bader

Certain events take place in history that become lessons even centuries later. Today, we talk about St. Francis of Assisi at a time when his feast is celebrated globally on October 4 each year. Why am I addressing him? It is because this year is special. This year marks the 800th anniversary of his visit to the East, namely to the Palestinian city of Acre, and then to the Egyptian city of Damietta, where he met Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil during the Frankish wars.

What happened in Egypt?

The first Islamic-Christian dialogue took place there. Eight centuries ago, St. Francis was able to convene a successful and fruitful conference in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance and respect. In 1219, St. Francis taught us what we cannot experience in the 21st century. He taught us in the 13th century that life is based on mutual respect among followers of religions, rather than through monopoly or polarization or rather refuting others’ views. Neither St. Francis nor Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil tried to change each other’s religion. This might have taken, but they met in an atmosphere of great respect.

In the 21st century, we are trying to experience with the Pope--who has the same name--some of the values that St. Francis experienced eight centuries ago. We are trying to experience the "human fraternity" which was the crux of a joint document signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Al-Azhar several months ago in Abu Dhabi.

We say so at a time when a Vatican-Al Azhar-UAE Higher Committee has been formed in an effort to impart the spirit of "human brotherhood" with the intention to turn the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” into practical initiatives in several countries and in the four corners of the world.

The Committee began its sessions in the Vatican with the participation of the Pope, and then proceeded to New York where the first official conference convened. The positive outcome of Pope Francis' visit to the UAE is the construction of the “Abrahamic Family House” in Abu Dhabi’s Sa’diyat quarter featuring a church, mosque and synagogue which indicate that the values of common living can be enhanced through spiritual, cultural and humanitarian initiatives.

Are we encountering a new facet of interfaith dialogue? I think so. Yet, we should follow the example of St. Francis by not focusing on speeches inundated with rhetoric and poetry. We would rather focus on practical initiatives that reflect simplicity and modesty, yet bear fruit even after eight centuries.

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