From left: Shaikh Majid Al Hafeed, Imam, Grand mosque of Sulaimania, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Dr Willam F. Vendley, Shaikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, Dr Mohammad Al Sammak, Secretary-General, Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, Lebanon, and Fatima Hashemi Rafsanjani, Secretary-General, Women’s Solidarity Association of Iran during the summit. Image Credit: WAM

Abu Dhabi: Leading religious leaders who gathered in Abu Dhabi on Saturday to discuss an action plan to combat violent religious extremism called on governments of the world to cease and desist from all forms of funding and support for religious extremist groups.

Religious leaders of all faiths concurred that it is their sacred duty in this fight against violent religious extremism to use their knowledge and influence to provide their followers with the correct explanations of their religious texts.

The global multi-faith summit ‘Religions Working Together to Counter Violent Religious Extremism’ also urged governments to help negate the drivers of violent religious extremism by promoting tolerance, mutual respect and working to remove all forms of oppression and violence.

Dr William F. Vendley, secretary-general of the organisation Religions for Peace, said governments should also work to reduce poverty and develop stable institutions that can deliver essential services to decrease the socio-economic drivers of violent extremism.

Participants emphatically agreed that now is the time for action against violent religious extremism. High-level religious leaders and inter-governmental officials including Dr Vendley; Shaikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, President of the Forum for Peace in Muslim Societies and Co-Moderator of Religions for Peace; Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria and Co-Moderator of Religions for Peace and Nasser Abdul Aziz Al Nasser, High Representative, United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) noted that one of the keys to defeating extremism is the capacity of religious leaders to educate and mobilise their congregations against extremism.

Shaikh Bin Bayyah said extremism is fuelled by “the misconceptions and misunderstandings of Sharia” and that it is up to the scholars to help the religious followers understand the text.

Shaikh Bin Bayyah said religions are increasoingly being abused in support of violent extremism — that is violence justified by an extremist religious ideology that does not acknowledge and honour human dignity and the rights vested therein.

Cardinal Onaiyekan said the Bible has been in existence for thousands of years but every generation has interpreted the Bible to reflect the needs of their generation; people are not scandalised when the interpretations of the 6th century are different from today, he said, adding that it was the need of the hour for religious leaders to put religious texts into context for their own people.

The conference emphasised that religious leaders must take an active role in developing the counter narrative by providing their followers with the authentic narrative. In the words of Dr Vendley, “The primary narrative of each religion is about peace and human dignity, let us collect and share the texts from all religious traditions that uphold human dignity.”

The conference closely examined the drivers of violent religious extremism, including psychological and socio-economic drivers as well as the misuse of religious traditions and texts.

Reverend Father Ayuso Guixot, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue highlighted the need to convince young people. “We have to reach young people, helping them live in a world of peace and justice. Young people need hope and jobs. Stagnant economies and poverty fuel extremism.”

The underlying theme, echoed by all participants, was that at the core of all religions is peace and respect for human dignity. Ayatollah Damad, Head of Islamic Studies at the Academy of Sciences of the Islamic Republic of Iran, explained that when there is a question of Quranic interpretation, we must view the text from its core principle, which is peace.

Shaikh Bin Bayyah stressed the same point. He noted that when conflicts of interpretations of texts arise, the default position is the position that advances peace.

The conference yielded a multi-religious statement, which called upon governments, the United Nations and religious communities to work together, leveraging their own unique strengths and abilities to counter violent extremism through the promotion of human dignity and rejection of violent extremist narratives.

Religions for Peace presented its three-year global action plan that engages its wide network to utilise education, advocacy and strategic humanitarian assistance in the fight against violent extremism. Religious leaders and UN officials pledged future collaboration under Security Council Resolution 2178 in joint efforts against violent religious extremism.

Al Nasser of the UNAOC reiterated the commitment of the UN to work with religious communities by reminding the group of UNAOC’s “work with religious leaders in many different parts of the world, often through our longstanding relationship with Religions for Peace to amplify their voices and more effectively disseminate messages of pluralism to their constituencies”. He also declared that, “UNAOC stands ready to support member states in addressing rising tensions that appear through the faces of racialisation, violence and extremism”.

The meeting also sought to send out a message of hope for all, a belief that we must have hope in order to combat violent extremism, which is born of despair.

Bishop Angealos of the Coptic Orthodox Church said, “We can give an account of the hope within us. We give hope — not rhetoric, a real hope that says, yes, there are problems and, yes, we can be part of the solutions. We can live together, we must protect each other. This is what God desires.”