04/03/2024, 11.09
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Makassed and the Vatican united in dialogue and the fight against Islamic extremism

by Fady Noun

Led by Mohammed Sammak and Fayçal Sinno, the delegation visited the Holy See for the first time. The meeting with Card. Parolin and the greeting to Pope Francis. The aim is to develop a cooperation agreement at the level of Christian and Muslim educational institutions. A meeting with Fr. Youssef Nasr, secretary of the Lebanese Catholic schools, is planned for the end of Ramadan. 

Beirut (AsiaNews) - In a discreet manner, without much media hype, a delegation of the Islamic Makassed paid a visit to the Vatican on 28 March, received at length by the Secretary of State, Card. Pietro Parolin, and to greet Pope Francis as he passed by at the end of the audience.The delegation included Mohammad Sammak, a columnist and author of some twenty books, secretary general of the National Committee for Islamic-Christian Dialogue and a leading figure of moderate Islam in Lebanon and the Arab world. Also with him was the president of the NGO Fayçal Sinno and their respective wives. The visit was the Islamic Makassed's first to the Vatican since its inception back in 1876. 

Founded in the 19th century, the Islamic Makassed Association is the oldest and most prestigious representing the Sunni community in Lebanon. Close to Dar e-Fatwa, the official reference body for the Sunni community, it provides assistance and services in three areas in particular: education, social services and healthcare. It has 24 schools spread across the Cedar Country, a university, mosques, hospitals and clinics, a scout group and several cultural institutions. With a total of around 10,000 employees, it operates with its own funds, although it receives aid and financial support from Saudi Arabia for some of its services in particular. This is the case, for example, of the dialysis department of the Makassed Hospital in Beirut. On the other hand, the institution claims to have 'lost all its properties in the city centre', entrusted in the past to the real estate company Solidere.

Islamic-Christian collaboration

The purpose of the visit to the Vatican was to develop cooperation between the network of schools linked to the Makassed - within which there are just under 6,000 students - and that of the Secretariat of Catholic Schools in Lebanon. The latter provide education to about a third of the total number of students in the entire country, amounting to 200,000 young people. The programme includes exchanges of students, teachers and schooling programmes. "We want to give a strong impetus to our cooperation agreement, which is now in its first year," says the Makassed president. "Hatred and mistrust," he adds, "must not be in our dictionary. 

"The Makassed delegation," Fayçal Sinno points out to AsiaNews, "was received for 50 minutes by Card. Parolin. Enthusiastic about the project, the Vatican Secretary of State called Fr. Youssef Nasr, president of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools, to encourage him in this direction, believing that it could contribute to strengthening coexistence and the culture of dialogue'. The parties then agreed to hold a coordination meeting after the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer.

The educator and administrator still remembers "the happy days" when students "did not think about different community affiliations" in their relationship with their peers. "With Card. Parolin we spoke freely about everything," adds the president of Makassed, who admits he was "surprised" by the in-depth knowledge of the Lebanese reality demonstrated by his interlocutor. At our insistence, Sinno then revealed that the Vatican Secretary of State said he was 'saddened' by the stalemate in the presidential elections. And for what he described as the "obstinacy, even selfishness" shown by the various leaders in the field, without neglecting the geopolitical stakes. On the other hand, the Makassed president praised his interlocutor's "exceptional qualities of faith and kindness" and the general atmosphere in the Vatican.

On the front line against extremism

It should be mentioned here that the Islamic Makassed are not limited to the educational, hospital and social spheres. Indeed, since 2015, the date of the 'Beirut Declaration on Religious Freedoms' whose themes are taken up in the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Human Brotherhood (2019), the institution has been at the forefront of the doctrinal battle against Islamic extremism. Celebrated in Christian political circles as the 'Saydet el-Jabal meeting', the 'Beirut Declaration' was adopted at the end of a conference that featured speakers Hicham Nachabé, rector of Makassed University, Mohammad Sammak and Radwan Sayyed, researcher and thinker. "The enemy is now on the ground. The extremist wave has reached us,' warns Sammak. "We used to think that our open and liberal society, with its multicultural composition, was safe from this phenomenon. Today,' warns the Muslim leader, 'we are surprised and shocked by its virulence, especially among young people, even if this trend remains a minority'. 

The "Beirut Declaration" specifies and defines certain aspects of Islamic doctrine on issues such as: the recognition of freedom of belief and teaching; respect for freedom of conscience; respect and dignity of the human being as an individual; the right to be different; respect for pluralism; the right to political and social participation; the construction of a civil state; respect for human rights charters; commitment to a united and democratic Lebanon, etc. "The declaration is pleasing," notes Sammak, "because it includes fundamental concepts such as respect for freedom of conscience. 'It is a notion,' he adds, 'at the heart of Christian culture and theology. Christians are not used to hearing us talk about freedom of conscience. We tend to talk about religious freedom, but freedom of conscience goes beyond that'. We must fight extremism, the Muslim leader concludes, 'from within Islam itself. We cannot just say: this is not Islam. We must convince Muslims with arguments from the Muslim faith, from the Koran'.

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