Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religious leaders met this week in Assisi to discuss peace, while across the ocean in New York City global political leaders assembled at the United Nations also focused on a troubled world, discussing refugees and migrants.
The Sept. 18-20 interreligious conference in Italy organized by the Community of Sant' Egidio was titled "Thirst for Peace: Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue" and drew some 450 religious leaders.
Among ecumenical participants were the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, and other leaders of the ecumenical movement, such as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew; and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
Pope Francis participated in the closing ceremony of the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on the afternoon of 20 September.
Quoting Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers," Francis said, "We thirst for peace. We desire to witness to peace. And above all, we need to pray for peace, because peace is God's gift, and it lies with us to plead for it, embrace it, and build it every day with God's help."
He said, "Our religious traditions are diverse. But our differences are not the cause of conflict and provocation, or a cold distance between us. We have not prayed against one another today, as has unfortunately sometimes occurred in history."
Continuing his remarks, the Pope said, "Peace means welcome, openness to dialogue, the overcoming of closed-mindedness, which is not a strategy for safety, but rather a bridge over an empty space. Peace means cooperation, a concrete and active exchange with another, who is a gift and not a problem, a brother or sister with whom to build a better world."
THE ROOTS OF RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
Tveit led a panel on terrorism and religious extremism, entitled "Terrorism - A Denial of God."
"No one can claim the name of God to use terror or violence," said Tveit. "Terror is a blasphemy against God our creator, who created all of us equally in the image of God. Terror is sin against other human beings, against the sanctity of life, and therefore against God.
Tveit noted that, "The ideology underlying those attacks is a mixture of political, cultural and surely religious justifications of violence. A key factor is the denial of the humanness of the 'others' that become the target."
"Terror is not a matter of figures or pictures from somewhere, it is about us as human beings. We can all become the victims of terror," he said, telling of how he himself escaped a terror attack in Bologna on Aug. 2, 1980, and how he later was reminded of it when reading the list of names in the new Bologna station years later.
In terrorism, Tveit noted, "The transcendent, transformative and holistic dimensions of religion are reduced to a totalitarian ideology that justifies and imposes itself in destructive ways and does not accept any responsibility for life-giving relationships beyond their own group and even within their own group as a collective entity.
But religions themselves are part of the problem, he insisted. "We should be critical and self-critical. There must be space for self-critique and repentance, for constructive imagination that opens doors for healing and reconciliation and the life-giving presence of God who renews all life."
Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the advisory council of the Indonesian Council of Ulama, expressed "high appreciation" to the lay Community of Sant'Egidio for "having kept alive the spirit of Assisi" by organizing the event each year.
Noting that Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, Syamsuddin said the cooperation "has brought concrete fruits of peace such as our common work in interfaith dialogue, peace education among youth, peace process and conflict resolution in Mindanao, South Philippines."
The gathering each year has helped moreover, he added, "to materialize our common ideals for peaceful coexistence and collaboration. To say, and to show, with concrete actions, that violent extremism in the name of religion is indeed misuse and even abuse of religion."
RABBI RECALLS NAZI CAMP
In his remarks, Rabbi David Brodman, Chief Rabbi of Savyon, Israel, recalled his own childhood at a Nazi concentration camp, and his frequent talks to young people today "because [he] who does not know history is condemned to repeat it."
The Spirit of Assisi, he affirmed, "is the best example for humility and holiness and it is the answer to the tragedy of the Shoah and of every war."
In Assisi, he stressed, "We say to the world that it is possible to become friends and to live together in peace, even if we are different." With the courage of dialogue, he said, conflicts can be prevented and a human world created "where everybody can recognize in others the image of God."
PRECONDITIONS OF PEACE
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said in his remarks that peace "needs a few cornerstones to uphold it even when it is endangered."
He said, "There can be no peace without mutual respect and acknowledgment.... There can be no peace without justice; there can be no peace without fruitful cooperation among all the peoples in the world."
Bartholomew said humanity needs to be able reflect on where it goes wrong or where it has not taken care, "because fundamentalisms have risen, threatening not only dialogue with others, but even dialogue within our own selves, our very own consciences.
"We have to be able to isolate them, to purify them, in the light of our faiths, to transform them into richness for all," he said, Vatican Radio reported.
Bartholomew was granted an honorary doctorate in international relations by the University for Foreigners of Perugia during the conference.
Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby reflected in an ecumenical prayer ceremony on the misconception in today's world that money makes one rich.
"We think ourselves rich," he said, "Our money and wealth is like the toy money in a children's game: it may buy goods in our human economies which seem so powerful, but in the economy of God it is worthless. We are only truly rich when we accept mercy from God, through Christ our Saviour."
The conference marked the 30th anniversary of the first interfaith "World Day of Prayer for Peace" held in Assisi first under then-Pope John Paul II, who has since been elevated to sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church.
Assisi was the home of St Francis, in whose honour the current pope chose his papal name.