Muslim students from the Attarkia Islamiah Institute sing during a rehearsal in Bangkok ahead of their performance for Pope Francis at Chulalongkorn University on Nov. 22. (Photo: AFP)
Pope Francis called for “a spirit of fraternal solidarity” in an interfaith meeting with Thailand’s religious leaders.
He visited students and faculty at an hour-long event held on Nov. 22 by Chulalongkorn University, one of Thailand’s most prestigious educational institutions. The university was founded a century ago by King Chulalongkorn, a reformist monarch who had an audience with Pope Leo XIII in the Vatican in 1897.
Speaking of the meeting of the Thai king (who is still widely revered in a country where the monarchy is accorded special status) with one of his predecessors, Francis stressed that the interfaith encounter between Chulalongkorn and Leo can serve as a useful reminder of the need for “a spirit of fraternal solidarity” in the modern world.
Young people, he noted in his address to the packed auditorium, must “pursue the path of dialogue and mutual understanding” regardless of their religious beliefs.
“No region or sector of the human family can look to itself or its future in isolation from or immune to others,” Pope Francis explained in his speech, which the Argentine priest delivered in his native Spanish.
As if to underline the pontiff’s message of universal camaraderie, an interfaith choir of youths sang heartfelt renditions of Christian songs.
Young ethnic minority people in their tribes’ traditional costumes from Thailand’s mountainous north sang alongside Muslim youths dressed in traditional Islamic garb from one of the country’s southernmost Muslim-majority provinces.
Listening in the audience were several Sikh men in their turbans, as well as thousands of Thai Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims.
Sitting between a Thai cardinal and a Buddhist monk, Francis was visibly moved by the interfaith choir’s performance.
The singers “have shown us that it is indeed possible to find a way to live in peace,” a professor of the university who acted as the MC for the event observed after the performance.
A spirit of peaceful coexistence and interfaith harmony could certainly benefit people, both Muslims and Buddhists, who live in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, where an Islamist separatist insurgency has claimed thousands of lives over the past decade and a half.
Insurgents have routinely targeted Buddhist civilians in brutal hit-and-run attacks, while the Thai army has been accused of perpetrating rights abuses and extrajudicial murders in its efforts to stamp out the insurgency.
In his address, Pope Francis commented on the “esteem and concern given to the elderly in Thailand.” This attitude, he went on to explain, “ensures that you preserve the roots necessary so that [young] people do not lose their bearings.”
Similarly, he highlighted the important role educational institutions can play to foster meaningful change in society, especially for the benefit of less privileged citizens.
A search for knowledge, Francis said, “can help to open new paths for reducing human inequality, strengthening social justice, upholding human dignity, seeking means for the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and preserving the life-giving resources of our earth.”