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When a King and a Pope Sit Down to Talk Religion…

Celebrate World Interfaith Harmony Week – February 1-7

It began with a visit to the Vatican in November 2007, the first time a Saudi monarch had visited a pope. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was on a mission to engage Pope Benedict XVI after the Vatican repeatedly ignored Muslim imams and scholars’ requests for broader dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

A year earlier the Pope had lectured at the University of Regensberg, in Germany. In his remarks, he quoted Manuel II Palaeologo, Byzantine Emperor from 1391 to 1425, who said “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Initial reactions to Pope Benedict’s quotation were swift and highly critical. Many Muslims accused Benedict of promoting Judeo-Christian dominance over Islam. Protests erupted around the world, with several Muslim countries recalling their ambassadors to the Vatican. Churches in the West Bank and Gaza were attacked, an Italian nun killed in Somalia allegedly in retaliation for the remarks, and the Pope himself, threatened.

It is worth noting that Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, expressed his “unhappiness,” saying “These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years.” The Vatican expressed its “deepest regrets” at the time, and the Pope said he had been quoting Manuel II, not agreeing with him. Nevertheless, Manuel II’s crude judgment was fodder for the global mainline media. It could not be ignored.

King Abdulla and Pope Benedict XVI greeting each other. Photo: religion.lilithezine.comSeizing an opportunity to improve Catholic-Muslim relations in spite of enmity and mistrust, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia arranged a tour of Europe and requested an audience with the Pontiff at the Vatican. A date was set, and for 30 minutes they spoke of the “value of collaboration between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.” They focused on the need for religious and cultural dialogue “for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family.” Both sides emphasized the need for a “just solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A short time after their encounter, King Abdullah made the formal call that he would convene a meeting of the Abrahamic faiths in a Madrid Conference. The choice of Spain as host was officially meant to recall the Golden Era from the eighth to the 13th centuries when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in relative peace under Islamic rule.

In Israel, Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger remarked enthusiastically, “I give my blessing to every initiative that can prevent bloodshed and terror, especially in our area of the world,” adding that most terror in the 21st century was religiously motivated, and therefore religious engagement and interfaith dialogue was crucial to solving the problem of terrorism.

Michael Cromartie, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors religious freedom globally and makes policy recommendations, called the proposed dialogue long overdue. “I don’t care who you put in the room — the fact they’re having the conversation can only help,” he said. “It’s a courageous thing for the King to do. One should not expect utopia, but it’s a start to have an open and free dialogue in a country with a reputation for religious oppression.”

Months later, at the invitation of King Juan Carlos of Spain, a successful three days of dialogue were held in June 2008. Nearly 300 representatives included Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and a host of other spiritual traditions. The conference led to a declaration of cooperation calling for enhancing common human values and their dissemination within societies, thereby strengthening stability and promoting prosperity for all humans. At the conclusion of the Madrid meeting, participants urged the United Nations to take a lead role in future interfaith dialogues.

A high-level meeting was set at the General Assembly in November 2008 which included former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Israeli President Shimon Peres, U.S. President George W. Bush and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Participants were urged to “promote dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, as well as activities related to a culture of peace, and welcome its focus on concrete action at the global, regional and subregional levels.” It was a powerful call to action and momentum grew.

H.M. King Abdullah of Jordan took a decisive lead, formally proposing to the U.N. General Assembly the observance of a World Interfaith Harmony Week on September 23, 2010. He said, “It is … essential to resist forces of division that spread misunderstanding and mistrust, especially among peoples of different religions. The fact is humanity everywhere is bound together, not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbor, to love the good… What we are proposing is a special week during which the world’s people, in their own places of worship, could express the teachings of their own faith about tolerance, respect for the other and peace.”

Jordan’s leaders were also instrumental in creating A Common Word Between Us and You exactly a year after Pope Benedict’s misguided remarks at Regensberg. This treatise is a declaration of common ground between Muslims and Christians; ithas been signed by over 495 Muslim clerics and imams and was recently updated to include several notable Jewish responses.

On October 20, 2010, World Interfaith Harmony Week was unanimously adopted by the United Nations as the first week of February, set aside each year for interreligious observances, the study of sacred texts, prayer breakfasts, interfaith celebrations of poetry, music and art, meditation groups, and afternoons of community service.

The World Interfaith Harmony Week website reports over 400 events in 2013 in 53 countries. This year there should be more.

Never underestimate the power and goodliness of a well intentioned conversation; it just may change the world.

Celebrate your faith in community and list your World Interfaith Harmony Week event here.

An earlier version of this article was published by the Euphrates Institute, where Rebecca Tobias is vice president of the Board of Directors.