Assisi: Interreligious Peace Dialogue, 30 Years On

 


  marco2  Marco Impagliazzo | Community of Sant’Egidio, Rome |


It is 30 years since the historic International Day of Prayer for Peace was held in Assisi, Italy, on October 27, 1986. That date continues to be a beacon of hope for the future in a world where “religious wars” or the “clash of civilizations” are endlessly talked about. It also serves as a signpost, especially at times when people have a sharpened sense of dismay and disorientation because of increasing conflicts, terrorism, or the challenges of globalization. That historic day, and the spirit that was born from it, speak to us about the unity of mankind. The prayers for peace at Assisi gave rise to a dialogue between people of different religions, who were maybe too used to living within the boundaries of their own particular worlds and so risked being trapped in nationalistic or conflictive identities.


The Community of Sant’Egidio has organized the International Encounter “Thirst for Peace. Religions and cultures in dialogue in which Pope Francis will also participate.


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International Day of Prayer for Peace convoked by St John Paul II, Assisi, 27 October 1986


AT THE HEART OF THE DAY


What exactly happened 30 years ago in Assisi? Pope John Paul II invited the leaders of Christian denominations and of other great religions to pray for peace. It was a day when different people prayed side by side, as the Pope said, and not against each other. 124 representatives of Christian denominations and of the great world religions met in the city of Assisi, “a place which the seraphic figure of St Francis has transformed into a center of universal brotherhood.” A historian observed that this unique initiative was considered a “turning-point in the attitude of contemporary Catholicism towards other religions” and that at the same time it was a key moment for the perception of Christianity on the part of non-Christian religions.

The origins of the Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi went back a long time. It was the result of a developing era of dialogue throughout the twentieth century – a century that was filled with both hope and suffering. According to recent estimates over 180 million deaths were caused by wars in that terrible century, and believers were somehow drawn together as a result. In the second half of the twentieth century people from different religions took part in dialogues and encounters as never before in history. The conversation was made possible to some extent by the Second Vatican Council, which in the Declaration Nostra Aetate raised the question of the Church’s relations with Judaism, Islam, and other non-Christian religions, with the idea of “promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations,” at a time of growing interdependency. The Declaration exhorted Catholics, “that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”

RELIGIONS HAVE A CRUCIAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE: INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE WORKS FOR PEACE, REJECTING TEMPTATIONS TO SMASH THE SOCIAL FABRIC OR INSTRUMENTALIZE RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES FOR POLITICAL ENDS


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St John Paul II with religious leaders at Assisi in 1986


PEACE AWAITS ITS BUILDERS


In the years following Nostra Aetate, migration and the demolition of borders brought people of different religions into contact with one another in their daily lives, enabling them to see the need for dialogue. Assisi 1986 was the fruit of that era: religious leaders coming together for all the world to see, together in prayer, together in their search for peace. This was not just another ritual, but a shared sign of trust in the spiritual energy and extraordinary strength of prayer. It was not joint prayer – there was no confusion or risk of syncretism. But it respected the differences between them and displayed the synergies between interreligious dialogue and believers’ commitment to peace. St John Paul II, in his closing speech, said: “More perhaps than ever before in history, the intrinsic link between an authentic religious attitude and the great good of peace has become evident to all […] Although prayer is in itself action, this does not excuse us from working for peace.” And, he went on: “Together we have filled our eyes with visions of peace: they release energies for a new language of peace, for new gestures of peace, gestures which will shatter the fatal chains of divisions inherited from history or spawned by modern ideologies. Peace awaits its builders.”


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Pope Benedict XVI at the Interreligious encounter celebrated at Assisi in 2011


Prayer and the commitment of believers are energies that can uproot the seeds of incipient conflicts. Meeting and getting to know one another, respecting one another, means bridging distances and travelling together toward the commitment to eradicate failures in understanding different cultures. The effort involves, in the words of Blessed John XXIII, seeking “what unites rather than what divides” and separating out the justification of any form of conflict from the different religious traditions. Since October 1986, many encounters have taken place in this spirit, as witnessed by the annual meetings organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio in the main European cities, plus Washington and Jerusalem. Each meeting is a time when men and women of different religions, cultures and convictions gather to find paths of peace in society, always seeking “the other”, or in other words a way that is different from the developments of these past thirty years, when conflicts and terrorism have reappeared forcefully, especially in the Middle East.

The expectations that arose after the fall of the Berlin Wall quickly melted away, and were replaced by a generalized feeling of helplessness. Religions themselves, from 1989 onwards, were strongly pressured to legitimize or bless conflicts, mobilize a nation, or justify hatred. So religious communities found themselves at a crossroads. On the one hand was the manipulation of the religious sense in order to divide and confront, and on the other, the ancient and ever-new unifying tension that sees every man and woman as created by God and therefore as brothers and sisters. Peace is inscribed as a value at the basis of all the religious traditions. And this, too, is what underpins the “spirit of Assisi,” and what enables the distances – sometimes real chasms – between different worlds to be overcome. Each stage has been a bridge and a further step forward from that crossroads.

DIALOGUE IS THE ART OF LISTENING PATIENTLY, UNDERSTANDING, RECOGNIZING THE OTHER PERSON’S HUMAN AND SPIRITUAL IDENTITY. WHEN RELIGIONS ARE CAPABLE OF DIALOGUE, THERE ARISES FROM THEIR HEARTS THE ART OF LIVING TOGETHER WITH OTHERS, WHICH IS SO BADLY NEEDED IN A PLURALIST SOCIETY LIKE OURS


ASSISI: HOPE FOR TODAY


What can the spirit of Assisi offer us today, in the especially complicated current situation in relations between countries and religions? The answers may not seem very obvious. This is a time of constant exchanges of messages, cultures and processes. Globalization is much argued about, and is part of the world we live in. Especially since the 1990s, changes have been happening so fast that it is hard to catch the new wavelength. And that also affects the sphere of religion: sometimes, older generations are slow to adapt to new circumstances, and younger ones lack the necessary personal depth.

The spirit of Assisi highlights the way the message of peace is something inherent in most of the world’s great religions. It is surprising how, starting in the last few decades of the twentieth century, a time that could be seen as the most secularized era in history, and when the disappearance of religion was widely mooted, religions in fact have attained a noticeable public presence in some regions of the world, even when that presence has been linked, on some occasions, to the rebirth of nationalism, protests by excluded groups, and even civil conflict and the recovery of a lost identity.


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A SHARED PATH TO FACE CHALLENGES


What do men and women of different religions want, and what can they do? People no longer live only among those with the same beliefs or cultures. In our times, people of different religions and different ethnic origins often live together. In Europe this experience is the result of immigration, but it has also arisen from the rebirth of a new sense of community between East and West and between North and South. It is the challenge of Africa, where, in these difficult times, people are having to cope with the weakness of national states, confronted with ethnic, religious and other differences. Challenges include the rebirth of nations, the relations between nations and religions, and ethnic cleansing in some regions of the world. But there is also the challenge of the virtual world, which offers continually more contact between everyone; in the digital world we all live together, and have to get used to exchanges with people who are very different from ourselves. And finally there is the challenge of a world where everything is to be seen: the wealth of a few and the destitution of very many, as Pope Francis frequently reminds us.

The human condition is increasingly becoming defined as the fact of co-existing. Sharing with others who are different is now the reality of life for many countries, religions and groups. It is not always easy. Its horizons are too broad for comfort – this is globalization – with worrying results: irresponsible individualism, defensive tribalism, new fundamentalisms, and terrorism. Many people may feel threatened and disorientated by their new neighbours and a world that is too big for them. Fearing both the present and the future, they turn to religions for protection, perhaps by building walls of distrust. Different kinds of fundamentalism are born – ethnic, nationalistic, religious – and can turn to terrorism. Fundamentalisms are simplifications that can fascinate and lure young people, the desperate, and those who feel lost in a complex and inhospitable world. But they can also be instrumentalized by unscrupulous politicians in search of a short-cut to power. Fundamentalisms are marked by hatred that sometimes leads to attacking anyone who is different from oneself, whether religiously or ethnically.

 “THE HUMAN CONDITION IS INCREASINGLY DEFINED AS THE FACT OF CO-EXISTING. SHARING WITH OTHERS WHO ARE DIFFERENT IS THE REALITY OF LIFE FOR MANY COUNTRIES, RELIGIONS AND GROUPS, ALTHOUGH IT IS NOT EASY


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BUILDING BRIDGES TO MEET OTHERS


Maybe in the past, different religions could remain ignorant of each other. In a world of vast distances and slow connections, mutual ignorance was no less harmful than it is today, but it was the easy path to take. Now, however, ignorance about one another’s beliefs quickly leads to conflicts and bitterness. In isolation, religious leaders can become trapped in nationalistic discourses. However, the universality that is essential to the different religions liberates and strengthens them through contact and dialogue.

Dialogue is the art of listening patiently, understanding, and recognizing the other person’s human and spiritual identity. When religions are capable of dialogue, there arises from their hearts the art of living together with others, which is so badly needed in a pluralistic society like ours. It is the art of cultures, personalities and groups that have reached maturity.


RELIGIONS AND PEACE


Religions live simultaneously in a particular community and within universal horizons, and so speak about God but live with human beings. This enables them to be a school of co-existence and peace. The Christian Scriptures remind us that “He [Christ] is our peace” (Eph 2:14). The teaching of the popes in the twentieth century echoes this constantly. In the Islamic tradition one of the names of God is Salam, “peace”. Religions look from the individual, considered as a person created by God and our brother or sister, to all peoples, in the conviction that war is poisoning the earth.

Religions do not have the political strength to impose peace, but by transforming individuals within, motivating them to break with evil, religion can lead them to peace of heart. Religion is a force for peace that needs to be unleashed and to act. Each religion has its own path – they are not alike. In men and women of faith, there is also the conviction of moral strength. They are not always equal to the demands made on them. But each religious community, made up of sinful men and women, shows a face that is humane and compassionate, in strong contrast to the terrible utopia of “perfect societies” built through violence by ideologies and sectarianism. Moral strength is closely connected with the compassion and mercy taught by many religions. Piety and spirituality are practised in specific, local religious communities, with a window open to the universal. One example of this is, for example, the ancient religious duty of hospitality to strangers. This is an attitude that we greatly need in these times of migration crisis in Europe and many other parts of the world.

THE PRAYER AND COMMITMENT OF BELIEVERS ARE ENERGIES THAT CAN UPROOT THE SEEDS OF CONFLICTS. MEETING ONE ANOTHER, LEARNING ABOUT ONE ANOTHER, IS THE WAY TO DESTROY MISUNDERSTANDINGS


THE “STRANGER” IS NEXT DOOR


In today’s world, the “stranger”, the “foreigner”, is close at hand. More drastically, sometimes our own neighbours suddenly become “the stranger”. In a globalized world, people of different faiths, ethnicities or cultures live side-by-side in the same towns and cities. Ethnic cleansing is still being employed in pursuance of homogeneous populations. But there are also different people living together without destroying their national identities, even though new problems are appearing on the horizon.

Religions have a crucial responsibility for people’s peaceful co-existence. Interreligious dialogue works for peace, rejects temptations to smash the social fabric or to instrumentalize religious differences for political ends. But for this to be the case men and women of religion need courage and faith, moral strength, compassion, and dialogue in order to break down so many barriers. Religions can play a great role in educating people in the art of living together. Likewise, they have a great task: reminding people that man’s destiny lies beyond earthly possessions, but has a universal setting, since all men and women are created by God. It is no coincidence that it has always been the saints and wise men of religion who have been able to envision a shared horizon.

Today we look further. The globalization of information enables us to know the needs and dramas of people in distant countries. The followers of the different religions have to meet the gaze of the poor, the afflicted, the marginalized. Poverty and exclusion in today’s world are a challenge to us.

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