04/26/2017, 18.06
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Francis in Egypt to strengthen Benedict XVI's "healthy secularism" in order to fight extremism

by Fady Noun

A recent conference in al-Azhar renewed the bases of the traditional relationship between the material and spiritual domains in Islam. Clearer bases are needed in the dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Benedict XVI’s teachings are important to understand the relationship between religion and politics and the difference between Christianity and the West.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The final declaration issued at the end of the Al-Azhar Conference on 28 February-1 March 2017 is important in that it reiterates the foundations of the traditional relationship between the spiritual and the temporal in Islam, said Emir Hares Chehab in his address.

The meeting brought together hundreds of Christian and Muslim specialists from around the world, both clergy and lay people. One of its consequences is the ban of the word "minority" from the vocabulary of political Islam, as well as the practice of violent discrimination against non-Christians in the name of Islam, thus recognising the equality of All, Muslim and non-Muslim, before the laws of the national constitutional state.

"In a fundamental way," said Chehab, secretary general of the National Committee for Islamic-Christian Dialogue and close to the Maronite Patriarchate, “there is no doubt that there is a before and an after Al-Azhar conference on ‘Freedom, Citizenship, Diversity and Integration’. This conference laid the foundations for a renewal of the dialogue between Islam and Christianity on a more realistic and clearer basis, guaranteed by religious authorities."

"In the past," he noted, "these relations were built on points of convergence between the two religions, but they left out their points of divergence, to maintain a positive climate in the dialogue. As a result, there was a widening gap between what was being said and what was happening in the relationship. Too often, participants relied on tactical statements rather than long-term strategic dialogue."

"After Al-Azhar,” wrote Chehab, “under the cumulative effect of past dialogue, and moved by a blazing present that undermines the very image of Islam and the very concept of state that emerged in the Arab world, dialogue acquired a foundational quality that was previously missing.”

The relationship between the spiritual and the temporal becomes a real challenge of civilisation. In this regard, Al-Azhar's stance is in line with the ideas developed by Pope Benedict XVI in his exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente (2011), written in the wake of the Synod on the Middle East.

In it, the pope emeritus sought to establish a relationship of "unity in distinction" between the temporal and the spiritual, which Christianity generally bases on the relationship between reason and faith. In his Exhortation, the pontiff defends the idea of ​​a "healthy secularity" (towards which Islam is moving, but which it still hesitates to call by that name), as opposed to another "secularity”, namely secularism in its “extreme and ideological form".

“A healthy secularity,” Benedict XVI wrote, “frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres. No society can develop in a healthy way without embodying a spirit of mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds. The basis of a constructive relationship between politics and religion is, first and foremost, human nature – a sound understanding of man – and full respect for inalienable human rights.

“A sense of this correct relationship should lead to the realization that relations between the spiritual (religious) and the temporal (political) spheres should be marked by a kind of unity in distinction, inasmuch as both are called, while remaining distinct, to cooperate harmoniously in the service of the common good. This kind of healthy secularity ensures that political activity does not manipulate religion, while the practice of religion remains free from a politics of self-interest which at times is barely compatible with, if not downright contrary to, religious belief. For this reason, a healthy secularity, embodying unity in distinction, is necessary and even vital for both spheres. The challenges raised by the relationship of politics and religion can be met patiently and courageously through a sound human and religious formation. Constant emphasis needs to be put on the place of God in personal, family and civic life, and on the proper place of men and women in God’s plan. Above all, greater prayer is required for this intention.”

Pope Francis could take advantage of his visit to Cairo to re-emphasise the points of convergence between Christianity and Islam, reinforcing the idea that the West should not be identified with Christianity and that the establishment of a healthy relationship between the temporal and the spiritual is to everyone's advantage.

On this subject, we can quote again from the Benedict XVI’s Exhortation. "The attention of the whole world is fixed on the Middle East as it seeks its path. May this region demonstrate that coexistence is not a utopia, and that distrust and prejudice are not a foregone conclusion. Religions can join one another in service to the common good and contribute to the development of each person and the building of society."(28).

“Like the rest of the world, the Middle East is experiencing two opposing trends: secularization, with its occasionally extreme consequences, and a violent fundamentalism claiming to be based on religion. Some Middle Eastern political and religious leaders, whatever their community, tend to look with suspicion upon secularity (laïcité) as something intrinsically atheistic or immoral. It is true that secularity sometimes reduces religion to a purely private concern, seeing personal or family worship as unrelated to daily life, ethics or one’s relationships with others. In its extreme and ideological form, secularity becomes a secularism which denies citizens the right openly to express their religion and claims that only the State can legislate on the public form which religion may take. These theories are not new. Nor are they confined to the West or to be confused with Christianity. (29)

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