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The Role of Religious Leaders in Fighting Extremism

Religion is the solution and not a part of the problem. Ignorance regarding religious teachings is the main factor behind fundamentalism

Pope Tawadros II | 13 April 2017
Pope Tawadros II

We are publishing the text of the speech delivered by of Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II speech at the conference on “Freedom, Citizenship, Diversity, Integration” which was held at al-Azhar from February 28 to March 1, 2017.

In the name of the one God which we all adore, and to whom are owed glory, power and adoration, now and forever. […]

What the world needs is concrete charity and real peace. Egypt and the whole of the Arabic world has suffered and suffers still today because of extremist thought, generated by a false understanding of the religion and which has led to violence, crime and terrorism which we face today. In this regard, I would like to bring three central points to your attention, which I think can clarify the problem and, I believe, shed light on possible solutions.

Extremist thought and fanaticism, with the violence to which it leads, is one of the greatest threats to coexistence. There is a physical terrorism, which plays itself out in killings and explosions repeatedly striking national institutions and the entire nation, spreading terror amongst the innocent. There is then an ideological terrorism, which consists in imposing an opinion with force, violating what is sacred and the faith of others, condemned as unbelievers and ridiculed in their religious practices. There is also moral terrorism, which is a condition imposed by intellectual extremism and the refusal of what is different: moral terrorism is carried out through injustice and discrimination based on religion and faith within relationships and daily life.

The reasons for this extremism are found in a unilateral education, based on a single opinion and outside of which every other opinion is necessarily labelled as unbelief and deceptive. Amongst the causes, there is what we can call a “sectarian personality,” in other words, the absence of a culture of respect towards the other, which we could compare to a person who looks in the mirror and sees no one other than himself: he doesn’t respect others neither in the name of their faith, their culture, or of their personal freedom. There is moreover ignorance of the other, which is a central point: this is the extremist mentality, which creates its own imaginary enemies. This is a simple summary of what we suffer in the Middle East. A solution could be found, founded on a three-fold approach.

The first consists in presenting enlightened and modern images of religion. Extremist thought can be cured in fact through enlightened thought. No point of view can be eliminated or imprisoned. It is necessary to face it from a constructive, enlightened debate and not on a purely conventional level.
Religion is the solution and not a part of the problem. Ignorance regarding religious teachings is the main factor behind fundamentalist and extremist opinions. The essence of Christianity, dear friends, is love and its motto is precisely: “God is love” (1 John 4:88). Christianity works towards peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). It is on love that we base our actions.
Following the events of 14th August 2013, the Church of Egypt has lived this love and worked in favour of peace: young people in the middle of burnt churches wrote statements such as: “We love you, we forgive you,” referred to the perpetrators of the attacks. We accepted the destruction of the churches so that in exchange man might live and the nation might live. As religious leaders, we have a great responsibility in transmitting an enlightened and relevant debate for these times: indeed, we live in the XXI century, which has its own instruments, its own facts and its own methods.

A second dimension of the solution could be thus summarized: “The variety is the richness of humanity.” Without diversity, man would himself be impoverished: we are different in the name of our religious identity, not our national identity. The method of those who want conflict strives to transform differences into divergences, divergences into conflict, conflict into tyranny and tyranny into division. Instead, the method which vouches for civil and modern coexistence, praised by all peoples of the world, sees an opportunity for dialogue within diversity, a dialogue within the context of mutual understanding, of tolerance in shared life. There is a culture of dialogue, like there is a culture of conflict, and there is a culture of walls which blocks every form of dialogue. We promote a culture of constant dialogue, just as this conference proves.

The third dimension is our will to build the most noble human values: we want that our societies always affirm the value of diversity and variety, respect for the other and respect of religious pluralism. Religious belonging is a personal issue, which has to do with man’s heart, that heart with which one will meet the Lord at the end of his life. We confirm the need to spread a culture of tolerance and coexistence, of love for life, for goodness and beauty. We confirm the need to welcome freedom of expression and to promote dialogue in a human and civil form. We have a strong need to educate man, the builder of these times, and to extract the fundamental human principles and values from religions which allow him to understand his existence and the project God has for him since the moment He created him. We need minds to be open. We need a sense of responsibility instead of a sense of dependency. We need dialogue instead of construction. We need to promote thinking and analysis instead of mere memorisation. Freedom of thought instead of indoctrination. These things, dear friends, hurt man’s creative skills: the world continues to produce tens, thousands of inventions and we need to contribute as well, in favour of our Arabic world, to these human creations. God created our minds, instruments which He has given us to create our life on Earth, because He be glorified through our life and through the human setting which we call civilisation, from which we draw extensively. We must all contribute to human civilisation, drawing principles and daily values from the foundations of religions.

We must promote new styles of communication rooted in the truth and a conscious use of social media, which are dominated by those with extremist thoughts: social media plays a very influential role in forming the minds of young people. We must acknowledge that and we need to use the same instrument to respond to extremism, through communicative, cultural and educational means. We must promote the role of women in creating awareness in the family and in children’s education. We must look after the family, insofar as it is the basis and the foundation in which man begins to interact from the beginning of his life and during his growth, in his life.

When man is fulfilled by love within in his own family, one becomes able to face society. This love can protect him from any extremism: “One who is full loathes honey from the comb” (Proverbs 27:7). A soul fulfilled by love is able to loathe honey from the comb, the honey of temptations, extremist tendencies and all the things that we see in our times.
Finally, dear friends, we would like to confirm that we live with the children of this nation, united by the shared human values and based on mutual respect; this will lead to stability and progress, constantly guaranteeing the best chance for life in our country and for the whole world.
Let us pray that God bless this sincere effort in the construction of our country and of the people of our region, so dear to us and which witnessed the birth of the religions.
Let us pray that God protect our countries from every evil and that peace reign throughout the world.
Glory to God forever, Amen

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