Commemorating the International Day of Human Fraternity: An Invitation to “Live Together in Diversity” and in “a Spirit of Fraternity”

Elena López Ruf is a lawyer who teaches philosophy of law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and “Religion and the Global World” at Austral University. This post is based in part on her chapter “Religious Freedom, Human Security, and Human Fraternity: Is Religious Freedom a Forgotten Freedom Within the Human Security Framework?” in Security, Religion, and the Rule of Law: International Perspectives (Routledge 2023).

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

—Article I, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On 21 December 2020, the General Assembly of the United Nations, during its 75th plenary session, established that 4 February be dedicated as an annual International Day of Human Fraternity. The U.N. resolution recognizes the contribution of people of all religions or beliefs to humanity and the importance of promoting inter-religious and intercultural dialogue “to enhance peace and social stability, respect for diversity and mutual respect and to create, at the global level, and also at the regional, national and local levels, an environment conducive to peace and mutual understanding.”[1]

The date 4 February was selected precisely to commemorate the signing of A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together—jointly signed on 4 February 2019 in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. The Document, also called the Abu Dhabi Declaration, prefigured the U.N. resolution in aiming to promote “a culture of tolerance, acceptance of others and of living together peacefully.”[2]

This meeting of two major religious institutions, the Catholic Church and Al-Azhar, constituted a powerful, strategic, and historic symbol in issuing a joint religious response to the challenge of pluralism and raising awareness of diversity as a good rooted in religious freedom. Both institutions sought to reinforce the conviction that inciting war, hateful attitudes, hostility, and extremism are the consequence of deviating from religious teachings, and to reinforce the imperative need to establish in societies the concept of “full citizenship,” based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice.[3]

The Declaration is a centerpiece in the journey of Catholic-Muslim relationships, also marked by other encounters between Pope Francis and Muslim leaders, as well as papal trips to the Holy Land, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Bangladesh, and more recently Bahrain, among other regions/countries. Within the Catholic tradition, the Declaration is also the consequence of interreligious dialogues initiated since Vatican Council II, with the Conciliar Declarations Nostra Aetate (1965), on the relationship between the Catholic Church and believers of other religions, and Dignitatis Humanae (1965), on religious freedom.

Furthermore, in assessing the historical significance of the Declaration, it is relevant to note that it was signed and sealed on a timely and unique occasion, namely the commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan Malek el-Kamel in Damietta, Egypt, during the Fifth Crusade (1213–21). However, the relevance of invoking this Muslim-Christian encounter is not just to note a historical fact but to emphasize its relevance to the present time, as it has become a symbol of peace, reconciliation, and fraternity to overcome the logic of the “clash of civilizations.” This encounter “has become an important part of the contemporary context for Muslim-Christian relations, Middle East politics and international relations.”[4]

A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together “was no mere diplomatic gesture, but a reflection born of dialogue and common commitment”[5] and inspired Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, which was written in the context of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and a world fragmented and fractured by “ʻa third world war’ fought piecemeal.”[6] Because of this, Italian scholar Borghesi has called it the “New Pacem in Terris,” invoking Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963), which was launched in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of a nuclear war and whose message remains relevant today: peace is a result of the consolidation of relations—between people, communities, and states—not solely an absence of war.[7]

One notable aspect of the Abu Dhabi Declaration and Fratelli Tutti is the way that both documents embrace pluralism and diversity as religious goods. An Italian Institute for International Political Studies report Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship suggests that the two different categories “human fraternity” and “inclusive citizenship” be understood as “a way to embrace and engage cultures and communities in a public space of creative interculturality”[8] and as a “model of managing religious diversity. . . . through a strategy of legal pluralism.”[9] These could be innovative responses, drawn from substantive religious contributions and political proposals, to the challenges of pluralism and the management of diversity in our societies.

Fratelli Tutti takes up and develops some of the great themes raised in the Abu Dhabi Declaration, and—rooted in a Catholic conviction and with openness to dialogue among all people of goodwill—it suggests reimagining a new vision of fraternity.

Fraternity was the first theme Pope Francis referred to on the day of his election as Pope, more than ten years ago. On the same day Bergoglio was elected and became Pope Francis, on the occasion of his first apostolic blessing Urbi et Orbi, he said, “Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity.”[10] Since then, fraternity has been the core of his pontificate’s reflection and pastoral mission.

St. Francis of Assisi has been a source of inspiration and guidance for Bergoglio and has motivated his Encyclical Letters Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti. With the words Fratelli Tutti, St. Francis addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a new way of life characterized by a spirit of “fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.”[11] Rooted and nourished by the evangelical witness of St. Francis and his school of thought and life, the meaning of fraternity has been preserved over the centuries until today, understood both as the complement and the exaltation of the principle of solidarity.[12]

In fact, on the occasion of the plenary session of the 2017 Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, titled “Towards a Participatory Society: New Roads to Social and Cultural Integration,” Pope Francis distinguished the two concepts:

[S]olidarity is the principle of social planning that allows the unequal to become equal; fraternity is what allows the equal to be different people. Fraternity allows people who are equal in their essence, dignity, freedom, and their fundamental rights to participate differently in the common good according to their abilities, their life plan, their vocation, their work, or their charism of service.[13]

At this point, it is also important to acknowledge that fraternity could be referred to as (1) solidarity among people and communities, (2) the social cohesion of a community, (3) participation in public discussion within a democratic society, and (4) “diplomacy of mercy,” when applied to multilateral action.[14] The latter encompasses

“the courage and generosity to freely establish certain common goals and to ensure the[] fulfillment of certain essential norms throughout the world” while maintaining faith with legitimately manifested will and resolving disputes through means offered by diplomacy, to achieve “a truly universal common good and the protection of weaker states.”[15]

Fraternity, dialogue, and social friendship are the central axis of Fratelli Tutti. But fraternity is not naive or utopic; it does not embody an abstract or idealistic significance. On the contrary, Pope Francis “is a realist . . . who knows that realism—in order to avoid crossing into cynicism—must take the risk of reaching out towards the ideal . . . [and] must be open to hope.”[16] In other words, the Pope recognizes that “[a]uthentic realism is real idealism.”[17] Furthermore, it must also be noted that Pope Francis characterizes fraternity with the adjective human to intentionally indicate that fraternity is not for him a new version of an abstract of universalism; instead, human fraternity is nourished by practicing (1) the courage of otherness, which involves the full recognition of the other; (2) dialogue and prayer, which are based on sincerity of intentions; (3) the promotion of education and justice, to form open identities in relationships and in reciprocity and with sensitivity to injustices, decreasing hatred and growing civility; and (4) the fulfillment of a flourished and dignified future, through integral and cohesive development for every human person, everywhere. The cultivation of these four practices are, for Pope Francis, the seeds for peace and fraternal living together of the human family.[18]

The notion of human fraternity looks after the quality and harmony of the relationships that shape and permeate the “good living” of each group. It also brings a new style of relating with, fostering, and encountering others—that is, acting with profound respect, trust, and openness to learn from each other. It is a transformative encounter that enables the other to “become ever more fully themselves.”[19] The act of recognizing others enables others to be and to participate in society from their unique identity. And as it becomes a culture, the “culture of encounter” makes possible the creation of a dynamic and sustainable social covenant, envisioning and building the good of the whole human family.

Therefore, the International Day of Human Fraternity is an invitation to envision relationships, in particular those between religious actors, civil society, and policymakers, and to re-imagine how together they might be catalysts of new relational dynamics at international, regional, national, and local levels, in the joint search for strategies and policies to live together simultaneously “in diversity” and “in a spirit of fraternity.”


[1] U.N. G.A. Res. A/RES/75/200 (21 Dec. 2020).

[2] Pope Francis & the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, The Holy See (4 Feb. 2019).

[3] Id.

[4] Scott M. Thomas, St. Francis and Islam: A Critical Appraisal for Contemporary Muslim-Christian Relations, Middle East Politics and International Relations, 136(1) Downside Rev. 3, 3 (2018).

[5] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti of the Holy Father Francis on Fraternity and Social Friendship, at para. 5, The Holy See (3 Oct. 2020).

[6] Id. para. 25.

[7] Massimo Borghesi, A New Pacem in Terris, (19 Oct. 2020).

[8] Italian Inst. for Int’l Political Studies, Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship: Interreligious Engagement in the Mediterranean 27 (Fabio Petito, Fadi Daou & Michael D. Driessen eds. 2021).

[9] Id. (quoting Silvio Ferrari).

[10] Pope Francis, Apostolic Blessing “Urbi et Orbi”: First Greeting of the Holy Father Pope Francis, The Holy See (13 Mar. 2013).

[11] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, supra n. 5.

[12] Pope Francis, Message of His Holiness Pope Francis to Prof. Margaret Archer, President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, The Holy See (28 Apr. 2017).

[13] Id.

[14] Fr. Antonio Spadaro, Interview with Pope Francis, The Holy See (2013).

[15] Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ, Cardinal Parolin: Multilateralism, Fraternity Needed on Path Toward Better Society, Vatican News (Apr. 2021).

[16] Borghesi, supra n. 7.

[17] Id.

[18] Pope Francis, Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates (3–5 February 2019), Interreligious Meeting at the Founder’s Memorial (Abu Dhabi): Address of His Holiness, The Holy See (4 Feb. 2019).

[19] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, supra n. 5.