Muslims-Christians Engagements for Social Transformation in Africa: 

The Role of academic institutions

Tangaza University College, Langata South Road, Nairobi, 11 April 2018


The impact of Academic Institutions in advocating and Promoting Interreligious Dialogue and Collaboration between Muslims and Christians


Keynote Speech by H. E. Msgr. Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot

Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue



Respected Academic Authorities,Respected Professors and Students,

Distinguished guests, Learned speakers and participants,


I thank all of you and especially Rev. Dr. Francesco Pierli, Programme Leader at Tangaza University College for inviting me to speak on the impact of Academic Institutions in advocating and Promoting Interreligious Dialogue and collaboration between Muslims and Christians. 

Since 1983, I taught Islamology and Interreligious Dialogue in Khartoum, in Cairo and eventually at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome. From 2005 to 2012, I was Director of the same Institute, until His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI appointed me as the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) on 30 June 2012. I have spent almost 30 years dedicated to teaching Islamology and Dialogue!

Vatican Council II urged all to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom for the benefit of all mankind”. (NA 3). In particular, the Church exhorted Christians to recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among the followers of other religions, with whom dialogueand collaboration shall becarried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life. (ibid. n. 2). 

In one way my life is an example of how the Catholic Church has realized the Nostra aetateDeclaration! Let me share briefly with you some experiences of dialogue in my personal life. First, by means of dialogue I have been able to discover the objective image of the other; Second, discovering the other, I have seen we are different, and through recognizing the difference I have rediscovered myself, and this has been very enriching for me; Third, is that although we are different, we exist together on the same plane, the world in which we all live. Therefore, there is a shared responsibility for both to engage in common projects through dialogue for building a better world, to contribute to social cohesion and to preserve human dignity in its integrity.

I remember a Muslim friend of mine in the Sudan who once told me that we should share in faith our commonalities and avoid our differences! As believers, we should struggle rather in a real competition of good deeds, not differences! He quoted the koranic verse: wa ‘āmilū al-sālihāt” (and do good deeds”!) (cf. for example Q. 2, 25).

I also remember, during the civil war in the Sudan, visiting a Catholic parish on the outskirts of Khartoum and, together with other religious leaders, planning ideas to favor the common good in the village, setting apart any kind of existing hostilities in order to do good to all regardless their religious beliefs. Dialogue indeed works where there is an awareness as well as training among people towards building the common good for all.

On another occasion, while I was visiting Christian communities in Mozambique, I remember a going to see the local Muslim leader, who shared with me the difficulties of maintaining good relationships among the members of his community and his calling me to help him in mediating for peace and reconciliation. I felt honored to be distinguished by that human gesture of confidence in my person, even though I was a Christian! We were in a small village in the bush and it was there that I experienced what Pope Francis calls “a dialogue of respect and friendship”!

I also remember the letter of welcome the imam of the local mosque wrote to me when I visited his hometown; he had asked me for money to paint the mosque so as to be able to welcome me with all the dignity I deserved. Very touching! I also laughed a lot! But I discovered the sincerity of heart that is in the innermost of every human person. This can be discovered through dialogue. On the occasion of the 50thanniversary of the creation of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican, Pope Francis invited us to be companions of every human person in our journey towards the Truth.

I will now try to answer question that I was specifically asked: How can Catholic and Muslim Academic Institutions contribute to making dialogue and collaboration more fruitful?

Being a Catholic leader, my answer will be mainly focused on the teaching that we can draw from the Bible and from the bimillenary wisdom of the Church.

Closely linked to the Church’s evangelizing mission, which flows from her very identity as completely committed to promoting the authentic and integral growth of the human family towards its definitive fullness in God, is the vast multidisciplinary system of religious studies. 

This system has developed over the centuries from the wisdom of the People of God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in dialogue with, and discernment of, the signs of the times and diverse cultural expressions.

The Second Vatican Council, in its decisive and prophetic effort to renew the Church’s life for a more effective mission in this moment of history called for a faithful and creative review of religious studies (Decree Optatam Totius,13-22). That review led to the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana, promulgated by Saint John Paul II on 15 April 1979. Almost forty years later, while remaining fully valid in its prophetic vision and its clarity of expression, Sapientia Christiananeeded to take into account new developments in the area of academic studies. There was also a need to acknowledge the changed social-cultural context worldwide and to implement initiatives on the international level to which the Holy See has adhered. This updating process led to the Apostolic Constitution Veritatis Gaudiumpromulgated by Pope Francis on 27 December 2017.

The prophetic inspiration of Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandion evangelization in the modern world is forcefully echoed in the Foreword of Sapientia Christiana. There we read that “it is necessary that the whole of human culture be steeped in the Gospel”.

Pope Paul VI’s social Encyclical Populorum Progressio likewise offered significant encouragement and concrete direction for the inculturation of the Gospel and the evangelization of culture in various regions of the world and in response to present-day challenges. Paul VI, in fact, incisively states there that the development of peoples, essential for attaining justice and peace worldwide, “must foster the development of each man and of the whole man”. It also speaks of the need for “wise men in search of a new humanism, one which will enable… [human persons to] find themselves”, thus interpreting the social question as an anthropological question affecting the fate of the entire human family.

John Paul II, for his part, reaffirmed and developed, with regard to the dialogue between philosophy and theology, the conviction underlying Vatican II’s teaching that “the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge. This is one of the tasks which Christian thought will have to take up through the next millennium of the Christian era” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 85).

Renewing the invitation to a new way of thinking proposed by Populorum Progressio, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that God wants to associate humanity to that mystery of communion that is the Blessed Trinity, and invites us “to broaden the scope of reason” thus enabling it to understand and guide the powerful new forces troubling the human family, “animating them within the perspective of that ‘civilization of love’ whose seed God has planted in every people, in every culture”. (Caritas in Veritate, 33). This in turn will “foster the interaction of the different levels of human knowledge”, theological and philosophical, social and scientific (ibid., 30).

Today, “there is a lack of wisdom and reflection, a lack of thinking capable of formulating a guiding synthesis”. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 74). The need for such a guiding synthesis not only makes clear the intrinsic purpose of the programme of religious studies, but also demonstrates, especially today, its real cultural and humanizing importance. Today’s recovery of an interdisciplinary approach is certainly positive and promising,even in its “weak” form as a simple multidisciplinary approach that favours a better understanding from several points of view of an object of study. It is all the more so in its “strong” form, as cross-disciplinary, situating and stimulating all disciplines against the backdrop of the Light and Life offered by the Wisdom streaming from God’s Revelation.

Concerning specifically interreligious dialogue and collaboration, there is an urgent need for “networking” between those institutions worldwide that cultivate and promote religious studies, in order to set up suitable channels of cooperation also with academic institutions in the different countries and with those inspired by different cultural and religious traditions, as you are already doing. At the same time, specialized centres of research need to be established in order to study the global issues affecting humanity today and to offer appropriate and realistic paths for their resolution. This can be a challenge that you can meet with.

The rich legacy of analysis and direction of the system of religious studies in the last forty years has been tested and enriched “on the ground” thanks to the dialogue with diverse cultures in different continental areas. These studies, in fact, beyond their primary purpose of offering opportunities for the suitable formation of religious personnel, are called at the same time to be a sort of providential cultural laboratory.

This is essential for a Church that goes forth in dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religious traditions! All the more so because today we are not only living in a time of changes but are all experiencing a true epochal shift, marked by a wide-ranging “anthropological” and “environmental crisis” affecting and concerning all cultures and continents.We daily see “signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises”. Yet “the problem is that we still lack the culture necessary to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of “redefining our notion of progress” and striking out on new paths”. (Pope Francis, cf. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si, 53; 105). This is why our collaboration is extremely urgent.

This vast and pressing task requires, on the cultural level of academic training and scientific study, a broad and generous effort at a radical paradigm shift, or rather “a bold cultural revolution”. (Ibid., 114). The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre. The good theologian and philosopher has an open, that is, an incomplete thought, always open to the maiusof God and of the truth, always in development, according to the law (of progress). (cf. Saint Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium primum, 23: PL 50, 668).

In this effort, the worldwide network of ecclesiastical universities and faculties is called to offer the decisive contribution of leaven, salt and light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the living Tradition of the Church, which is ever open to new situations and ideas. “Likewise,other religionsfound everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites”. (NA, 2). Therefore, in the spirit of Nostra aetate, the academic and scientific collaboration already existing between Tangazaand UmmaUniversities shall be strengthened even more, in order to search for new criteria for a renewal and revival of mutual contribution to answer the deepest needs and most pressing questions of the human family. As a former Catholic academical and now bishop, I would like to contribute to this new vision with the following points: 

a) The Church is “a mystery rooted in the Trinity, yet she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, [and her] ultimate foundation is in the free and gracious initiative of God”. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 111). This is also the source of the imperative to allow our hearts and minds to heed the cry of the earth’s poorand to give concrete expression to the social dimension of evangelization, which is an integral part of the Church’s mission. It is true that “we may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards”. This option must pervade the presentation and study of Christian truth especially when in dialogue with followers of other religious traditions: we believe that the whole of creation has a Trinitarian imprint that makes the cosmos in which we live a “network of relations” in which “it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things”. This in turn fosters “a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity”. (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 240).

b) Dialogue with Christians of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, as well as with those of other religious or humanistic convictions, maintaining “contact with scholars of other disciplines, whether these are believers or not”, in an effort to “evaluate and interpret the latter’s affirmations and judge them in the light of revealed truth”.(Foreword, III, cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 62). This wide-ranging dialogue is not a mere tactical approach, but an intrinsic requirement for experiencing in community the joy of the Truth and appreciating more fully its meaning and practical implications. Today more than ever we are called to promote a culture of encounter,in generous and open cooperation with all the positive forces that contribute to the growth of universal human consciousness. A culture, we might say, of encounter between all the authentic and vital cultures, thanks to a reciprocal exchange of the gifts of each in that luminous space opened up by God’s love for all his creatures. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, “truth, in fact, is logoswhich creates dia-logos, and hence communication and communion”.(Pope Benedict, Caritas in Veritate, 4). 

From this standpoint and in this spirit, your institutions can learn a lot from each other comparing and sharing the structure and method of the academic curricula, their guiding principles and their various levels of disciplinary, pedagogical and didactical organization. Rethinking and updating the aims and integration of the different disciplines and the teaching imparted in ecclesiastical and Islamic studies within this specific framework and intentionality can bring to new ways of relating to God, to others and to the world around us. Discovering that we share inspiring essential values can give the opportunity to organise common studies curricula and reach the places where new narratives and paradigms are being formed  (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 74), where secular and religious extremism can take over our liberal freedoms and institutions and become drivers of terrorist attacks around the world.

c) Considering the vital intellectual principle of the unity in difference of knowledge and respect for its multiple, correlated and convergent expressions, inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches shall be carried out on the level of both content and method. This entails offering, through any possible interchange platforms, a variety of disciplines corresponding to the multifaceted richness of reality disclosed by the event of Revelation.

d) In the fragmented and often disintegrated panorama of contemporary university studies and considering the uncertain, conflicting and relativistic pluralism of current beliefs and cultural options, dialogue and collaboration shall also be targeted to improve internal cohesion together with flexibility, and organicity together with dynamism.

Dear friends, do not be afraid to continue on the way of interreligious and intercultural dialogue and collaboration among your own beautiful academical institutions. My experience tells me that following the path of dialogue truly enables us to live in a liberating and responsible way the “mystique” of living together.(Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 87; cf. 92). This provides the leaven of that universal fraternity which is “capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbour, of finding God in every human being, of tolerating the nuisances of life in common by clinging to the love of God, of opening the heart to divine love and seeking the happiness of others just as our heavenly Father does”. (Ibid., 92).

To conclude, I would like to report here the key points from the speech, that Pope Francis addressed participants of an International Peace Conference at Al Azhar university in Cairo on 28 April 2017,[1]returning the visit he had received by Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in the Vatican on 23 May 2016:

1. Interreligious dialogue demands respect for one’s own identityand that of others, sincerity of intention, creating civility of encounter. The only alternative would be incivility of conflict, said Francis. We are “constantly called to walk together, in the conviction that the future also depends on the encounter of religions and cultures.” Working for the common good cannot be achieved if God is eliminated from the horizon,or if He is appropriated for oneself.

2. Religion risks being “absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs”and “tempted by the allure of worldly powers that in fact exploit it” but we are not meant to “spend all our energies on the uncertain and shifting affairs of this world” but rather “journey towards the Absolute.” Religion reminds us “to lift our hearts to the Most High in order to learn how to build the city of man.” 

3. “Demagogic forms of populismare on the rise” which do not help “consolidate peace and stability.” It is of little or no use to raise our voices andrun about to find weapons for our protection:what is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters and not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction.”

4. “To prevent conflicts and extremism and to build peace, it is essential to eliminate poverty and exploitation, shed light on “murky manoeuvrings that feed the cancer of war,” and end arms proliferation.  Despite the need for the Absolute, we must reject any “absolutizing” that would justify violencewhich is the “negation of every authentic religious expression.” The Pope stressed again a clear “No!” to “every form of violence, vengeance and hatred” carried out in the name of religion, and spoke of the “incompatibility of violence and faith”, saying peace alone is holy” and “no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God for it would profane his Name.”

5. Religion is not meant to only unmask evil but promote peace, perhaps today “more than ever,” but without “giving in to forms of facile syncretism”but rather “praying for one another.”

6. Educationcan become wisdom for life if it draws out of men and women the best of themselves, is centered on human dignity, fosters a sense of identity, and overcomes temptations to rigidity and closedmindedness. We need to “accompany young people”, helping them on the path to maturity, “growing heavenward” in each other’s company, and creating a “civilization of peace and encounter.”

I wish and pray that this beautiful climate of peace and mutual respect and encounter that one can truly breathe here among you could grow in your day-by-day contacts in order to enhance collaboration and dialogue between Tangaza and Umma Universities.

Thank you for your kind attention.