In 2013, long before Pope Francis’s historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula, the head of the Catholic Church said his thoughts often turned to the people of “the Holy Land,” because it is there that “the light of the East” – the light of faith – shines resplendent. He went on to say: “The geographical, historical and cultural context in which they have lived for centuries has indeed made them natural interlocutors with numerous other Christian confessions and with other religions.”
For a region marred by conflict and instability, it might seem fanciful to believe that the modern Middle East could serve as the “light” to help guide a more peaceful human fraternity. But as the pope’s recent travels demonstrate, the best way to tackle religious extremism is to promote interfaith dialogue in the very places where the challenges are most acute.
Too many people forget that the major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – originated in the Middle East. But scratch the surface, and the reminders are everywhere. Some of the world’s oldest churches, synagogues and mosques are scattered across the region, serving as archaeological proof that religious diversity runs deep.
In 1992, for example, archaeologists working on Sir Bani Yas island in the United Arab Emirates discovered the foundation of a Christian monastery dating to around 600 AD. Another 7th century church was found on nearby Marawah Island. Both structures are thought to have been built by the Assyrian Church of the East, formerly known as the Nestorian Christians.
Christian ruins in neighboring Saudi Arabia are even older. Near the town of Jubail, a 4th-century Assyrian church was unearthed in 1986. Other church relics have been found near Riyadh and in Jeddah, while archaeologists working in Najran, near the border with Yemen, have dug up Christian monuments and inscriptions dating to the 5th and 6th centuries.
There are ancient synagogues, too. One of the oldest is in Sidon, Lebanon, where a synagogue from 833 is built atop an older site where Jesus once preached.
What makes the region’s archaeology most impressive, however, is not the stones or engravings, but that the discoveries have compelled leaders to reconsider the foundations of tolerance. The UAE, which has long exhibited an openness and acceptance of people from different cultures, was a natural host to the pope. More surprising have been recent conversations in Saudi Arabia, where the discovery of Christian relics is prompting discussions about building new churches to revive ancient ties to an old faith.
Years ago, when I was a journalist working in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, the sectarian conflicts that I wrote about did not fit neatly into narratives of religious discrimination. Violence is rarely so clean. But nearly everyone I spoke with could recall peaceful periods when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in the same buildings, in the same neighborhoods and treated each other as friends – sometimes closer than family. These stories always made me wonder: How can the world recapture its lost religious harmony?
The pope’s visit to the Arabian Peninsula is a step toward an answer. During the pontiff’s sojourn in Abu Dhabi he met with the Muslim Council of Elders; held talks with Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar; and signed a “Human Fraternity” document to promote tolerance and interfaith relations. At a mass in the city, more than 150,000 people from the UAE and beyond gathered for an event of powerful religious unity. In symbolism and substance, the seeds of religious understanding have been replanted.
And yet, nurturing those seeds will require more than promises. It will take an acceptance of others that has eluded the faithful for centuries.
The legendary parable of the “three rings” illustrates just how arbitrary and insular religious views can be. When the Muslim leader and general, Saladin, asked a Jew named Melchizedek whether he thought Judaism, Islam or Christianity was best, Melchizedek replied with a story. “Once upon a time, there lived a wealthy man who possessed a ring of inestimable worth,” the man began. “Its stone was an opal that emitted hundreds of colors, but its real value lay in its ability to make its wearer beloved of God and man. The ring passed from the father to the most favored son for many generations, until finally its owner was a father with three sons, all of whom he loved equally.”
Melchizedek continued: “Unable to decide which of the three sons was most deserving, the father commissioned a master artisan to make two exact copies of the ring, then gave each son a ring. Each son believed that he alone had inherited the original and true ring.”
Modern religion is similar to the views forged in those rings. If religion’s “light” is ever to guide humanity toward common ground, it is essential that it shine constructively. We can begin by addressing our own instances of intolerance, and by accepting others as they are.
Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.
AFP PHOTO/THOMAS COEX