By Hannah Brockhaus
In his first speech in Egypt on Friday, Pope Francis denounced all forms of violence and hatred, saying that they are blasphemous when carried out in the name of God, or under the pretense of religion.
“Peace alone, therefore, is holy and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his Name.”
“Together, in the land where heaven and earth meet, this land of covenants between peoples and believers, let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God,” he said April 28.
Pope Francis spoke to participants of an International Conference on Peace held at al-Azhar University as part of his April 28-29 visit to Cairo. The visit comes as the result of a recent thawing in relations between the Vatican and the university, which had been strained since 2011.
Grand Imam of the Mosque of al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayyib, also spoke at the conference. He is considered by some Muslims to be the highest authority the 1.5-billion strong Sunni Muslim world and oversees Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque and the University attached to it.
In his speech, Francis emphasized the role of religious leaders in ending violence and promoting peace, saying they are called “to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity” and is based not on “authentic openness” to God, but on selfishness.
“We have an obligation,” he continued, “to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.”
The Pope explained that violence and faith, belief and hatred, are incompatible, asking those present to affirm this with him. “Together let us declare the sacredness of every human life against every form of violence, whether physical, social, educational or psychological,” he said.
Francis reflected on the historical value Egypt has placed on education, saying it is absolutely necessary for the future and the proper education of the next generations that they make decisions based on peace.
“To counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence, we need to accompany young people, helping them on the path to maturity and teaching them to respond to the incendiary logic of evil by patiently working for the growth of goodness,” he said.
In his speech, the Pope illustrated several points with symbolism taken from Mount Sinai, a mountain in Egypt believed to be the site of the biblical Mount Sinai.
Also called the “Mount of the Covenant,” Mount Sinai, he said, “reminds us above all that authentic covenants on earth cannot ignore heaven, that human beings cannot attempt to encounter one another in peace by eliminating God from the horizon, nor can they climb the mountain to appropriate God for themselves (cf. Ex 19:12).”
Mount Sinai is held to be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments, according to both the Christian and Islamic traditions. At the center of these commandments, the Pope emphasized, “addressed to each individual and to people of all ages” is the command: “Thou shalt not kill.”
“Above all and especially in our day, religions are called to respect this imperative, since…it is essential that we reject any ‘absolutizing’ that would justify violence. For violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression.”
Pope Francis also called out the increasing move toward secularism in society, saying that abandoning religion is not the answer to fundamentalism – religion itself holds the answer.
We are often caught between relegating religion to the private sphere or – on the other hand – not properly distinguishing between the religious and political. But religion is the antidote to a “banal and uninspired life” that has forgotten the existence of eternity, he said.
But religious faith must be “born of a sincere heart and authentic love towards the Merciful God,” otherwise it does not liberate mankind, but “crushes” it, he warned.
Continuing, Francis praised the cooperation between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Committee of al-Azhar for Dialogue for their work as a “concrete and encouraging example” of dialogue and encounter between different religions and cultures.
“National leaders, institutions and the media are obliged to undertake this urgent and grave task. So too are all of us who play a leading role in culture; each in his or her own area, we are charged by God, by history and by the future to initiate processes of peace, seeking to lay a solid basis for agreements between peoples and states,” he said.
“It is my hope that this noble and beloved land of Egypt, with God’s help, may continue to respond to the calling it has received to be a land of civilization and covenant, and thus to contribute to the development of processes of peace for its beloved people and for the entire region of the Middle East.”