Religions at Assisi in Search of Peace
“Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life, love!”—Pope John Paul II.
ASSISI, ITALY, January 24, 2002—Representatives of the world’s organized religions were gathered to pray for peace, a peace threatened by terrorism, intolerance, and injustice. The meeting was announced by the pope some two months after the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City. Many religious leaders accepted the Vatican’s invitation with enthusiasm.
On two earlier occasions—once in 1986 and again in 1993—the pope had called for a day of prayer in that same Italian town. * More than a thousand journalists from all over the world came to monitor the 2002 meeting. Many religions were represented in prayers for peace—those of Christendom (Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Orthodox, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Quakers, and others), Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Jainism, Tenrikyo, Buddhism, Judaism, traditional African religions, Shinto, and Zoroastrianism. Delegations from other religions, as well as a representative of the World Council of Churches, were also present.
Declarations in Favor of Peace
The day began at 8:40 a.m., when the “peace train” pulled out of the small Vatican station. Made up of seven railroad cars well-equipped for comfort, the train was escorted by two helicopters for protection. A two-hour journey brought the pope and other religious leaders to Assisi. Security was high—about one thousand policemen stood on the alert.
The religious leaders gathered in an ancient piazza covered by an enormous marquee. Inside, a large, red V-shaped stage accommodated the religious representatives, with the pope’s seat placed in the center. At the side of the stage was an olive tree—a symbol of peace. In front of the stage was an audience of more than 2,000 carefully selected guests. The front row was occupied by some of Italy’s highest-ranking officials. Great choirs sang hymns to peace between speeches. In other parts of the town, thousands of people, mainly youngsters, displayed antiwar slogans in several languages and sang songs about peace. Many bore olive branches.
After taking his seat on the stage, the pope welcomed the members of the various religious delegations. Then, after the singing in Latin of a hymn based on Isaiah 2:4—which prophesies a time when “nation will not lift up sword against nation”—a dozen delegates, each in distinctive religious garb, made solemn declarations in favor of peace. The following are some examples.
“In this historical moment humanity needs to see gestures of peace and to hear words of hope.”—Cardinal François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân.
God “is not a God of war and conflict but a God of peace.”—Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeus I.
“Religious differences should not lead [people] to ignore, or even hate, those who are different.”—Dr. Setri Nyomi, World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
“Justice and fraternal love are the two indispensable pillars of true peace among people.”—Chief Amadou Gasseto, representative of traditional African religions.
“Only peace is holy, war is never holy!”—Andrea Riccardi, Catholic Church.
Some delegates acknowledged that religions bear a serious responsibility for fomenting intolerance and war. The representative of the Lutheran World Federation stated that the world had been “shaken by the ferocity of hatreds fanned by religious fundamentalism.” A representative of Judaism said: “Religions have served to foment scores of horrendous and bloody wars.” A Hindu delegate declared: “History repeatedly throws up instances where self-proclaimed saviours of religion have put religion in the service of power and divisive forces.”
After solemn condemnations of terrorism and war, the delegations retired, each to its assigned place, to pray to their respective divinities for peace.
Prayers for Peace
The representatives of Christendom’s religions prayed together in the lower Basilica of St. Francis, near the tomb that gives the church its name. The function began with a “Trinitarian invocation” by the pope and three other delegates. Prayers were interspersed with hymns and invocations exalting peace as well as with Bible readings on the same theme. One prayer requested the establishment of “an undivided faith.” To conclude the ceremony, the participants sang the Our Father in Latin, based on Matthew chapter 6, verses 9 through 13.
At the same time, delegates of other religious groups were praying at other locations. In a hall oriented toward Mecca, the Muslims, kneeling on carpets, called on Allah. The Zoroastrians, who prayed near the Jains and Confucians, lit a sacred fire. The delegates representing traditional African religions prayed to the spirits of their ancestors. The Hindus asked for peace from their gods. All implored their divinities according to their own rites.
A Common Commitment to Peace
The delegations reconvened under the marquee for the conclusion of the ceremonies. Burning lamps—representing the hope of peace—were solemnly handed to the delegates by monks. The scene was picturesque. Then various members of the delegations read a common commitment to peace, each making a different declaration.
“Building peace requires loving one’s neighbour.”—Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeus I.
“Violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion.”—Dr. Konrad Raiser, delegate of the World Council of Churches.
“We commit ourselves to educating people to mutual respect and esteem.”—Bhai Sahibji Mohinder Singh, representative of the Sikh religion.
“Peace without justice is no true peace.”—Orthodox Bishop Vasilios.
Finally, the pope read the words found in the introduction to this article. This interfaith meeting concluded with the delegates embracing one another in symbol of peace. Carefully prepared, eloquent words were accompanied by pomp and ceremony. What, though, was the reaction to this impressive occasion?
‘If Actions Follow Words’
Newspapers and television acclaimed the pope’s initiative. Some even called the pope the “spokesman of all Christendom.” The Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano defined the day at Assisi as a “milestone on the road to building a civilization of peace.” The headline of the newspaper Corriere dell’Umbria was “Assisi Gives Light to Peace.”
Not all observers were so enthusiastic. Some expressed skepticism because despite previous days of prayer for peace in 1986 and 1993, wars fought in the name of religion continue to plague mankind. Religious hatred has fueled bloody slaughter in Uganda, the former Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland.
The Italian newspaper La Repubblica noted that some critics dismissed the meeting as “just a show.” A member of the European Parliament said that in order to promote peace, religious people should “practice the Gospel”—that is, observe the words “love your enemies, turn the other cheek.” That, in his view, is something “nobody is doing.”
The president of the Italian Jewish Communities said that “it will be good to see what happens now, that is, if concrete actions and real change follow words.” The representative of the Italian Buddhists expressed herself in like manner, saying that one should “ensure that appeals for peace do not remain just good intentions.” One journalist, writing for the Italian magazine L’Espresso, suggested that the meeting at Assisi served another purpose for the religions of Christendom represented there. He called it “a coalition of resistance against religious disaffection, indiscipline, and disbelief,” as well as an effort to combat the “severe process of secularization” that afflicts Europe despite its “Christian history.”
Among the event’s more severe critics were Catholic traditionalists, who fear the watering down of their church doctrines. In a television interview, Vittorio Messori, a well-known Catholic writer, noted the risk that the event at Assisi might blur the differences between religions. Of course, ecclesiastical authorities had taken precautions to avoid giving the impression of mixing religions. The pope himself made a statement to refute such charges. Nonetheless, for many the very nature of the event seemed to suggest that the various religions simply represent different ways to approach the same higher power.
Religion and Peace
What, though, can organized religions do to bring about peace? Some people find the very question ironic, for religions seem to do more to cause wars than they do to prevent them. Historians have noted the way secular powers have used religion to foment war. However, the question arises: Why have religions allowed themselves to be used?
The religions of Christendom, at least, have a sacred precept available to them that could have helped them avoid the guilt associated with warfare. Jesus stated that his followers would be “no part of the world.” (John 15:19; 17:16) Had Christendom’s religions lived by those words, they would not have united themselves with political powers, approving of and blessing armies and war.
Really, in order to live up to the fine words spoken at Assisi, religious leaders would have to keep their distance from political power. Moreover, they would have to teach their adherents the ways of peace. However, historians note that the people carrying out the violence in the world include plenty who believe in God—or at least say they do. A recent newspaper editorial stated: “Not long after Sept. 11, somebody scribbled these chillingly profound words on a wall in Washington, D.C.: ‘Dear God, save us from the people who believe in you.’”
All the pomp and ceremony at Assisi left some difficult questions unanswered. But perhaps no question is more important—or more troubling—to many religious people than this one: Why has God apparently refused thus far to answer the prayers for peace that have been offered by the world’s religions?
^ par. 4 To learn more about the day of prayer for peace in 1986, please see Awake! of June 8, 1987.
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Delegates with burning lamps—representing the hope of peace
AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito
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AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito