Faith groups gather in Assisi to seek peace
In a world shaken by terrorism and religious conflict, Pope John Paul II and leaders from all major faiths are uniting to show that faith can be a source of mutual respect and serve as an antidote to violence.
With the pope at the helm, the leaders will gather today at Assisi, Italy, for a day of prayer and peace. During a Jan. 1 speech, the Roman Catholic leader called on Christian, Islamic, and Jewish leaders to "take the lead in publicly condemning terrorism and denying terrorists any form of religious or moral legitimacy."
The indefatigable pontiff invited more than 100 religious representatives to join in a pilgrimage to the Italian town to share reflections, spend time in prayer, and issue a common commitment to pursue an "authentic peace."
"Sept. 11 has made everyone aware of the fact that not addressing the kinds of issues involved here, of tolerance and pluralism, can have catastrophic repercussions," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.
It was with a 1986 meeting in Assisi that John Paul II began his effort to build an alliance with other world faiths, believing they should work together against the common enemy, materialism. The Vatican has since hosted several interfaith gatherings.
But the pope has also sought to build ongoing dialogues, reaching out to apologize for past wrongs of his church and showing respect for other faiths during visits abroad. His proclamation that anti-Semitism is a sin against God and his apology for the Crusades were crucial steps in establishing ongoing interactions with Jews and Muslims.
Today's gathering will also include presentations from leaders of Hinduism, Buddhism, and the traditional African religions, as well as Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant churches.
"Most of our traditions are beginning to come out of their childish, exclusive cocoons and to learn that we have to learn to work together for a better world," says David Rosen, international director for interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, who is attending the Assisi meeting.
Convinced that the world is facing an emergency, the pope said he wished particularly to bring Christians and Muslims together to proclaim to the world that religion must never be a reason for hatred and violence.
The awareness of the need for dialogue has grown on both sides. Muslims, both internationally and in the United States, recognize that they must work to see that non-Muslims better understand mainstream Islam and how to distinguish it from the extremist fringe, Dr. Esposito says. This month, for example, his center is hosting a delegation of Muslims and Christians from Egypt to discuss pluralism, and he is helping convene a New York conference, with former President Clinton's involvement, on the global engagement between America and the Islamic world.
Sayyid Syeed, executive director of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), finds hope in the global interfaith gatherings and US efforts at dialogue. A participant in a 1999 Rome meeting, Dr. Syeed says the Muslim world's "memories of the last millennium are so painful, so excruciating," that the pope's gestures have had tremendous impact. "We need to break from the past and create a new sense of direction for this millennium," he adds, "and we can prepare humanity for this by discussing issues and finding common ground."
In the US, Muslims and Catholics have engaged in active dialogue for several years. Syeed has co-chaired one of three regional groups now in dialogue, which meet annually.
The groups are producing papers on topics of shared interest - revelation, marriage and the family, and surrender and obedience to God, says John Borelli, interim director of interreligious affairs for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"We [Catholics] as a community have passed through many of the stages of acclimation to the American scene that they are going to pass through," he adds. "Also, we have our school systems ... and we are of a similar mind on certain public issues."
Syeed, whose group also meets with other denominations, says is it much easier to pursue such dialogue in America's free and pluralistic society, whereas other societies are still struggling with the tensions and power struggles flowing from colonialism.
Still, in recent months, major religious bodies in the Muslim world have held conferences on everything from Muslim-Christian relations to issues of terrorism, Esposito says.
And the Assisi meeting is of major symbolic importance, he adds. "It's sending a message internationally to the two communities - to the religious leaders and, if they are close-minded, directly to their followers."