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Signing of Dialogue Agreement with al-Azhar al-Sharif

Posted on: February 2, 2002 12:30 PM
Related Categories: Abp Carey, Interfaith, nifcon

This is the text of a speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, at Lambeth Palace at the formal signing of an agreement for dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the al-Azhar al-Sharif university in Cairo.

It is a great pleasure along with my wife to welcome every one of you to Lambeth Palace for a very significant and hopeful moment in the history of Muslim-Christian relations.

It is a particular pleasure to welcome the Grand Imam of al-Azhar al-Sharif, His Eminence Dr Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, who will be speaking to us in a few minutes and with whom I shall later be signing our dialogue agreement.

I also welcome very warmly HRH Prince Hassan of Jordan, who is so deeply committed to inter faith dialogue.

I shall mention some of our other distinguished guests later but I shall now begin my short address with a reading from the New Testament. I have always admired Muslims for the way they commence speeches with a reading from the Qur'an, so let me emulate that by reading a passage from Mark's Gospel in which Jesus defines the two greatest commandments.

Then one of the teachers, who had been listening to these discussions and had observed how well Jesus answered, came forward and asked him, 'Which is the first of all the commandments?' Jesus answered, 'The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength." The second is this: "You must love your neighbour as yourself." No other commandment is greater than these."

This teaching of Jesus provides a simple but challenging context for us to understand what we are doing in Muslim-Christian dialogue.

For Christians as for Muslims there is no higher commandment than to love God. But Jesus reminds us that this fundamental orientation towards God cannot be separated from our relationship to our neighbour. The commandments to love God and neighbour belong together. If we think that we can love God while we ignore, despise or hate our neighbour, we are deceived and our religion is empty.

Love of God and love of neighbour belong together. But the question is asked: 'Who is my neighbour?' And the history of the human family demonstrates repeatedly that in practice we tend to define as our neighbours a small section of humanity - those who are most like us - and we tend to regard with suspicion and wariness those who are not like us.

We must acknowledge that this tendency can be very strong among religious believers. It is one of the great features of any faith that it produces strong bonds between its adherents. Muslims feel that special bond among themselves, and so do Christians. But let us admit that along with this sense of unity in faith there can come a temptation to regard those outside our faith-community as not truly our neighbours. It is not difficult to find reasons to justify this attitude since we do have significant differences in our religious beliefs and practices. And the history of Christian-Muslim relations - as well as their present reality in some parts of the world - do not always speak of neighbours living together in peace and harmony.

So, as I consider the teaching of Jesus to love my neighbour I am convinced that it applies today with a particular urgency to the call to Christians and Muslims to reach out to each other and so discover that God has given us each other as neighbours to be respected, to be understood, to be loved.

That is why I believe that dialogue is not an optional extra for our Muslim and Christian communities. It is not an 'add-on' for a few eccentric specialists on the fringes of our communities. Dialogue is a concrete expression of obedience to the command to love our neighbour, because if we are to love one another we must understand one another, which is what we seek in dialogue.

And we pursue dialogue not just for our own benefit. Love for all our neighbours requires us to seek the common good, the good of the societies in which we live, the good of the wider world. Our dialogue therefore needs always to have an outward-looking dimension to it, prompting us to ask how the moral vision and moral energy of Christians and Muslims (along with those of other traditions) can be harnessed to help us address the pressing problems which confront us all.

Now let me become more specific and say how very glad I am to be hosting this occasion at which the Anglican Communion and al-Azhar al-Sharif commit themselves to this calling to dialogue over the coming years.

However, today's historic commitment has a history behind it. Both in 1995 and in 1999 I had the honour of giving a lecture at al-Azhar al-Sharif, and in 1997 the Grand Imam was my guest here at Lambeth Palace. There are those present who will remember the occasion when he spoke to an audience of Christians and Muslims in this very room and encouraged us to develop our dialogue here in England. From the time of the previous Grand Imam, al-Azhar al-Sharif has had a Permanent Committee for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions. Since 1998 that Committee has worked with our fellow-Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. In 2000 and 2001 preliminary discussions took place between representatives of al-Azhar and the Anglican Communion and then in September of last year a small delegation from both sides met to draw up the Agreement which we have today. (You should each have a copy of this.) It is significant that this work was completed on the afternoon of September 11th, just before the news from New York and Washington reached Cairo and underlined in the most emphatic way the need for the friendship and understanding which we have reached and wish to further.

Many people have contributed to this process, but I wish to mention my particular appreciation of the role played by the Grand Imam, Dr Tantawy.

None of these conversations and meetings could have happened without the active support and encouragement of the Grand Imam. As I am sure most of you know very well, he holds a very ancient and deeply respected position as the most authoritative voice of Sunni Islam. We are deeply grateful for your leadership in this initiative. I - and my successor - will continue to value working with you very greatly.

Among Dr Tantawy's colleagues may I especially thank two who will be signing the dialogue agreement together with him today, Sheikh Fawzy El-Zefzaf and Dr Ali El-Samman, respectively President and Vice-President of the Permanent Committee of al-Azhar for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions. Both have worked very hard towards this agreement and we are all most grateful to you.

May I also thank my own colleague and co-signatories, Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, Anglican Bishop in Egypt, and Canon Christopher Lamb, who has worked for the Church of England for many years in the field of inter faith relations.

I wish also to make some comments about the wider context of Christian-Muslim dialogue which is currently emerging. Much of my time over the last few weeks has been given to initiatives in this field. Only two weeks ago, in this very room, I welcomed 40 Christian and Muslim scholars from around the world to a two-day seminar entitled 'Building Bridges'. It was an exciting time. I believe bridges were built, and that further bridge-building initiatives will flow from it.

Recently I have also been to Alexandria, where Dr Tantawy hosted with me a meeting of Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders. Together we presided over the meeting which produced the First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land. It included the words: 'We seek to live together as neighbours, respecting the integrity of each other's historical and religious inheritance.' We hope and pray that this marks the beginning of a process which will make a real contribution to peace and justice in the Middle East.

So there is much to encourage us but much remains to be done. Today marks the beginning of a new relationship, but in the famous words attributed to Sir Francis Drake we are reminded that, in any great matter, 'it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same unto the end . . . which yieldeth the true glory'.