Last week, with little fanfare and under heavy security, an historic meeting took place in Rome which marked a turning point in interfaith relations. Inside the 16th century Casina Pio IV villa, home to the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, seven clerics representing over five billion people overcame lingering traditions of suspicion to commit to the eradication of modern day slavery by the year 2020. The summit concluded with the signing of a declaration that condemns slavery as a crime against humanity.
The Global Freedom Network, the organization behind the initiative, was hoping to bring to light the abhorrent evil that affects nearly 36 million people, but the meeting went above and beyond its intended purpose and literally made history. For the first time since the establishment of the Catholic church, the Pope met face to face with a Grand Ayatollah representing the Shia faith. Not only did the two become co-signatories of an important document, but they shook hands, and chatted informally before and after the event at one of the Vatican's beautifully decorated garden pavilions. Recognizing the significance of hosting a Shia leader at the heart of the Catholic church for the first time, the Pope followed the Grand Ayatollah into the pavilion to shake his hands. "How are you?" said Grand Ayatollah al-Modarresi, a moderate but powerful scholar with a big following in the Shia world. "Fine, thank you" replied the Holy Father who looked a little weary having just arrived from a trip to Turkey. "It is important for me that you would be fine" said al-Modarresi, surprising the Pontiff with his English. "Because if you are fine, many people around the world will be fine". Most notable is how both leaders showed humility and set aside protocol and engaged with one another on a personal level. There were plenty of genuine smiles, handshakes, and a group photo.
Adding to the uniqueness of the event, was the fact that it was attended by Al Azhar, the Sunni world's foremost religious establishment, as well as the Chief Rabbi of Argentina (who sat to the left of the Grand Ayatollah) and the Archbishop of Canterbury Revd Justin Welby (who exchanged light-spirited banter with the Shia leader as he sat to his right). Following the ceremony and as we joked about how easily people condemn others as hell-bound, I extended an invitation to the Archbishop to visit the holy Shia shrines in Karbala and Najaf on behalf of the Grand Ayatollah.
In the world of international diplomacy, all of this might seem normal, expected even. But this wasn't politics, but something much bigger and more meaningful. While it would make sense to tackle the problem of slavery by appealing for government intervention, the team behind the initiative decided to take a different route. Andrew Forrest, the Australian philanthropist businessman who is on the Executive Board of the GFN and has financed its work told me he opted to involve religious leaders because "politicians can enact laws banning certain practices, but only faith leaders can change the deep-seated values which influence people's behaviors".
Forrest then embarked on a strenuous journey to bring the world's highest ranking religious leaders together to condemn slavery. Most religious establishments are, by definition, riddled with protocol and grueling formalities, and assembling senior figures of different faiths is a gargantuan task. With tireless efforts spanning over a year, the GFN and the WalkFree Foundation worked with Vatican officials, finally achieving the impossible, and the supreme clergymen and women convened on December 2, 2014.
The exceptional nature of the event was summarized by Andrew Forrest in an interview with CNN: "for the first time, a Grand Ayatollah shook hands with a Pope". Indeed it was the first time the global faiths had met through their highest representatives. And the handshake was particularly timely too. It comes amid a crisis reshaping the geopolitics in the Middle East where both the Shia and Christians are facing an existential threat and a war for their very survival.
In fact, Grand Ayatollah al-Modarresi was the first Shia religious leader (with Grand Ayatollah Sistani following shortly after) to issue a call to arms against the ISIS menace, after its swift capture of large swathes of land in Iraq. In his statement, al-Modarresi warned against the destruction of churches and temples belonging to all religions. Shia religious centers have even opened their doors to Christian refugees, with the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf now serving as homes to thousands of Christians as well as Shias who have fled possible massacres. In effect, Shias and Christians have found themselves perfectly aligned in the fight against terror. Highlighting their insistence on positive engagement, not just one but two senior Iraqi Shia leaders participated. Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Bashir Najafi spoke via video at the summit.
There is another reason why this meeting was critical. The world has for a long time seen the Shia as a negligible minority. But with hundreds of millions of Shias around the world and at least eleven countries where they are either a majority or a significant minority, the world has finally awoken to the fact that Shias are not just a force to be reckoned with, but an ally to depend on. Even the Vatican now recognizes that the Shia faith is not distilled in either a single country, nor one monolith.
"The world is a big place" the Grand Ayatollah told the organizers, "and there are many different groups, religions, and factions.. We must engage with them for the betterment of humanity.. While some have called for a 'dialogue of civilizations', I call for the 'perfection of civilizations', whereby each civilization completes and perfects the other." He cited the Quran: "God talks about the Prophet as being 'A mercy to mankind', not just Muslims, but all of mankind". In his speech, attended not only by the Pope and other world religious leaders but also foreign ambassadors to the Holy See, academics, and Hollywood celebrities, he said "at its core, divine religion is one, but failure to understand religion has divided human beings and created barriers between us.. We must exert extra effort to tear down those barriers and join religions under the umbrella of a common term". He concluded by saying "we have a calling to love one another.. to protect the environment, to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and to end slavery in all its forms." A standing ovation ensued and the audience was electrified.
Of course, this being the first of its kind, it was merely an ice-breaker of sorts, but a significant step towards greater religious harmony. If such high level summits remain on the agenda and leaders of the world's religions continue to engage one another to address matters of mutual concern, friendships will be forged, relationships will be strengthened, and, in the words of Grand Ayatollah al-Modarresi, "many people around the world will be fine".