Diverse group discusses moving beyond tolerance to empathy at UN side event

Photo: Peter Kenny/WCC

A diverse group of Christian and Muslim believers and international diplomats met at a side event at the United Nations in Geneva in a celebration of diversity with key speakers shunning extremism and committing to tolerance as a gateway to peace.

Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, executive director of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue opened a 21 March panel discussing, “Celebration of diversity: beyond tolerance, the path towards empathy.”

The event was sponsored by the United Arab Emirates mission to the UN in Geneva.

Jazairy, a former Algerian ambassador and a special UN adviser, said he would like the meeting’s message to reach the UN Human Rights Council and the UN children’s agency, UNESCO, which concerns itself with education, and also the Arab League and the African Union.

Speakers noted that the role religion can play for peace is distorted by those who steal it to promote extremism.

Jazairy also noted that “secularity” includes diversity while “secularism” works to exclude faith-based groups.

Speakers included Dr Farouk Hamada, spiritual advisor to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who spoke about the United Arab Emirates’ promotion of tolerance.

Also on the panel were the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the UN in Geneva Obaid Salem Saeed Al Zaabi; Marie-Thérèse Pictet-Althann, ambassador of the Sovereign Order of Malta; Rev. Dr Peniel Rajkumar, programme executive for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches (WCC); and Alexander Mejia, deputy head of the UN Institute for Training and Research.

Jordanian Prince El Hassan bin Talal

Jazairy read a support message from Jordanian Prince El Hassan bin Talal, patron of the 25 June 2018 World Conference on Religions and Equal Citizenship Rights.

“This is a particularly timely initiative after the perpetration of a heinous terrorist act in Christchurch, New Zealand,” said the prince, referring to the 15 March attack on two mosques in Christchurch by an Australian-born man using automatic weapons, killing 50 people, and wounding scores of others.

“This shows that terrorism has no nationality and religion but is an aberration that can be stimulated by irresponsible political discourse thousands of miles away.”

Jazairy called for a minute of silence for “the innocent victims of violence and hatred, wherever they might have suffered including recently in the Netherlands,” referring to an attack by a Turkish-born man who killed three people on a Utrecht tram and in which police suspected a terror motive, on 18 March.

He praised the sensitivity shown by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern responding to the Christchurch attacks, noting she wore a veil when meeting shooting victims and their families and used Muslim words of condolences, also saying in a speech, “We are one, they are us.”

Jazairy said, “Tolerance is not an end in itself, but it is the path that leads to empathy. The latter is the gateway to peace.”

Pope Francis and the Grand Imam

He extolled the February meeting between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyib resulting in the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

“I was particularly inspired…that this document expresses almost identically the…messages contained in the Outcome Declaration of the World Conference on ‘Moving Towards Greater Spiritual Convergence Worldwide in Support of Equal Citizenship Rights’ adopted on 25 June 2018,” in Geneva.

WCC’s Rajkumar, said the recent tragic events remind us that the journey from discrimination to the celebration of diversity is not easy.

“Our task of uprooting racism goes hand in hand with the task of planting. What are we called to plant? We are called to plant seeds of hospitality and empathy. That brings us to the theme of this panel. The way beyond tolerance today might entail embracing the values of hospitality and empathy in a context of xenophobia,” he said.

Pictet-Althann used an example of embracing other, in Lebanon where the Order of Malta carries out inter-religious aid projects all over the country through cooperation with Lebanese Islamic institutions in the socio-medical domain noting, “Shiite nurses wear our cross on their working dress.”

World Council of Churches, oikoumene.org