Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the Al-Azhar Mosque today in Cairo:
As salaam alaikum.
I am honoured to address you in this esteemed seat of Islamic learning. Standing here, one cannot fail to feel the impressive weight of more than 1,000 years of history, culture, scholarship and worship.
As Secretary-General of the United Nations, and as a man of faith, I have come to express my respect for Islam and my solidarity with its followers in these turbulent times. It is less than a month since a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, took the lives of 50 worshippers of all ages.
Over the weeks, we have come to learn many inspiring stories about the victims. We have read about people who lost their lives saving others. And we have heard the words of a husband lost in grief over the death of his wife, yet extending words of forgiveness, because, as he said, “that’s what Islam taught me”.
As the Holy Qur’an says in Surah Fussilat, verse 34, “Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better and then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend.”
We have also been deeply moved by the extraordinary displays of leadership, love and solidarity from the people of New Zealand and beyond. We saw it in England where a white non-Muslim man held up a placard outside a mosque that read: “You are my friends; I will keep watch while you pray.” Such solidarity is often in evidence after a tragedy.
We saw it in Pittsburgh, last year, after the worst anti-Semitic terrorist attack in United States history. Members of the Muslim community were quick to voice their support and raise money for the victims. The Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Islamic Center said at the time: “We just want to know what you need. If it is people outside your next service protecting you, let us know. We’ll be there.”
This is the spirit that I know is deeply embedded in Islam - a faith of love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy and grace. As United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I saw the generosity of Muslim countries opening their borders to people in distress in a world where, unfortunately, so many borders are closed.
This is in line with what I regard as the most beautiful prescription for refugee protection in world history. It is found in the Surah Al-Tawbah of the Holy Qur’an, Surah 9, verse 6: “And if anyone seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he can hear the words of Allah. Then escort him where he can be secure.” This was revealed to the Prophet, may peace be upon him, more than 14 centuries before the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Let me emphasize that the prescription is that protection should be given to both believers and non-believers. This is a remarkable example of openness and tolerance.
In this time of difficulties and division, we must stand together and protect each other. Yet, around the world, we are seeing ever-rising anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. Hate speech is entering the mainstream, spreading like wildfire through social media and radio.
We see it spreading in liberal democracies, as well as in authoritarian States. These dark forces menace democratic values, social stability and peace. They stigmatize women, minorities, migrants and refugees. When people are attacked, physically, verbally or on social media, because of their race, religion or ethnicity, all of society is diminished.
We all have a part to play in repairing the fissures and ending the polarization that are so prevalent in many of our societies today. Our faith leaders, in particular, have a very important role. That is why it is so heartening to see the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, and Pope Francis join hands in Abu Dhabi in February in a show of interfaith brotherhood.
I have here, given by the Grand Imam, the common text approved by him and the Pope — which is a fantastic testimony of mutual respect, tolerance, compassion and peace, given by the two great religious leaders to the world. As the Grand Imam stated, Muslims have paid a heavy price due to the actions of “a handful of criminals”. He also stressed that “all religions agree that God forbids killing”.
The document they signed on “human fraternity for world peace and living together” calls on religious and political leaders to bring an end to wars, conflicts and environmental decay. It further calls on Christians and Muslims to recognize and respect one another and work together for the good of humanity. And we will do our best for the United Nations to make sure that this document goes everywhere and is seen by everybody.
I commend this bold move, and the Grand Imam’s call for Muslims in the Middle East to protect Christian communities. I also commend the initiatives taken by Al-Azhar to promote the true face of Islam and counter violent extremist philosophies and terrorist propaganda.
Nothing justifies terrorism, and it becomes particularly hideous when religion is invoked. To live in a world of peace, we must nurture mutual understanding and invest in making diversity a success.
As the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, said: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” We must counter and reject religious and political figures who exploit differences. And we must ask why so many people feel excluded, and why they are tempted by extreme messages of intolerance against each other. Ultimately, we must all work together for our collective benefit.
This is the reasoning behind the United Nations 2030 Agenda [for Sustainable Development] and its Sustainable Development Goals — the world’s blueprint for a fair globalization and an inclusive and prosperous society. At the heart of our efforts, we must uphold and promote human dignity and universal human rights.
Yes, we have different faiths, cultures and histories, but we are all connected by our common humanity. Instead of dwelling on our differences, let us focus on what unites us, and work together for a better future for everyone, everywhere.