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Posted September 8, 2006

Sant’Egidio at work

Religions as "Precious Resources of Peace"

Address by Andrea Riccardi in Assisi

ASSISI, Italy, SEPT. 5, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is the address that Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio, gave at the opening Monday of the 20th Interreligious Prayer Meeting for Peace. The two-day event was held in collaboration with the Diocese of Assisi-Nocera.

Andrea Riccardi
Community of Sant'Egidio

Mr. President of the republic of Burkina Faso,
Distinguished representatives of the Churches, Christian communities and great world religions,
Cardinal Poupard, chairperson of our assembly,

Dear friends,

I am happy and moved, for we meet again in Assisi, with men and women of different religions and from different countries. I thank the civil authorities and all those who have generously welcomed us. I would like to greet and thank Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, whom I regard as a dear friend.

We are here after 20 years, for only one simple and crucial reason: peace, for a world of peace. "We feel that we face the common challenge of giving a soul of peace to our globalized world" -- was written in the appeal for peace of Barcelona in 2001. It articulates what we feel in our spirit. It is no small thing, and it certainly cannot be given for granted today.

We feel we share a common task, though we are different. We meet with each other so that distances between religions and cultures do not stretch any further, because of the press of current affairs, for instance, full of hatred and contempt. Sometimes people produce abysses. We meet because we believe in talking, listening and dialogue.

It is the kind of dialogue Paul Ricoeur patiently taught; he called it "hospitality for the other with his or her own convictions." We cannot look at one another hurriedly, or from far off, through the disfiguring lens of simplification, we need to welcome each other, and give hospitality to each other. Monk Enzo Bianchi, a Christian man, thoughtful about the future, once wrote: "Listening to the other is never done in vain, but we need to let the other meet us: Listening means giving hospitality to the other within ourselves."

Meeting the other by listening and through friendship is the expression of mutual hospitality in a time when people are afraid of others and drive them away, when people believe they know the others because they see them from far off, on the TV. For monotheistic religions, this hospitality is symbolized by our father Abram: Unfortunately today it is in part impossible to practice it in the land where Abram dwelled, since it has been troubled for more than half a century by conflicts that seem to be irremediable.

Assisi is a place of hospitality. Here, an extraordinary Christian, Francis of Assisi, who was extraordinary because he lived out the Gospel, lived as a man of peace when war was common around here, in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. He was a meek man, a man of prayer, a little man who conceived a huge design of peace challenging war and the culture of violence that enjoyed great favor at the time.

In Assisi, 20 years ago, in 1986, John Paul II summoned the religious leaders of the world to pray for peace, in memory of Francis: "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." It was a great vision, which evoked the inalienable spiritual dimension of peace, that challenges all and could not be overwhelmed even by the power and culture of the Cold War.

With his invitation, the Pope collected the dreams and yearnings scattered throughout the history of the 20th century, which were often humiliated as delusions amid wars and violent passions, facing people's powerlessness in front of evil. Those were longings of great and strong spiritual men, which could not be lost. Here, in 1986, they were collected and offered with a simple and evocative gesture.

The Pope had understood that although a majority of sociological theories had considered them doomed to extinction, religions could sanctify conflicts, bless incomprehension, or even motivate violence and terrorism. Religions, however, could also be precious resources of peace. That is why we needed to be close, with our eyes to God, to the One who is beyond us.

The 27th of October 1986 was a cold day, and the wind was blowing hard on the hill of Assisi. It was the day the most widely shared religious event of the 20th century took place. There were no negotiations, no debates, no confusedly sought agreements, and no theological discussions: but fasting, silence, prayer, and friendship. Assisi was prayer one beside the other, no longer one against the other, like in the past.

We were there. Some of us, myself and many friends of Sant'Egidio. At the end of his speech, the Pope said: "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 is a workshop, open to all and not just to specialists, savants and strategists."

That event released energies and a new language of peace. This is the spirit of Assisi. It is the language we have tried to speak, year after year, for 20 years. That open workshop could not be deserted. It could not be closed down, like a pleasant celebration, perhaps for fear of failure or criticism. We had to work on it.

After 1989, when at the end of the Cold War conflicts became articulated, violence spread in new ways, and severe terrorist threats rose. For a moment peace truly seemed at hand, then it was lost again in the complex and confused maze of history. The workshop of Assisi opened breaches in new walls. We wanted to continue. I speak for the Community of Sant'Egidio. Together with our friends, as one can see in these days, it is glad to lend itself to set up this event and gather up the daily threads of a friendship that has no boundaries. But I also speak for this procession of men and women belonging to different religions, and secular believers, who believed in this work of peace, who supported it, animated it, who brought it to many cities in the world and feel connected to a common engagement that goes beyond religious differences.

I wish to thank them, with conviction, because as John Paul II once told me -- and he wrote it as well -- "it is thanks to you that the spirit of Assisi did not die away." Indeed, thanks to you it did not die away like a fashion that goes by; it has become a landfall for people who believe, for people who suffer because of war.

For 20 years, year after year, we have met, because we believe that peace is the future and in prayer we find the root of peace. The image of 1986 -- the religious leaders together -- was renewed and enriched, year by year, in a journey that covered the whole globe. When religions speak of peace, they express the best of what they are.

I remember Warsaw in 1989, when the world trembled in tension; I remember the memorable words of fragile Pietro Rossano, a lamented companion of these dreams: "Every religion, when it expresses its best, tends to peace. We are aware that religion, in itself, is a weak strength. It is alien to weapons. […] It prefers silence to many words, to delve into itself and become thoughtful. But it possesses the power of the spirit that can make it strong."

I recall Warsaw and Auschwitz in 1989, when the future was far from clear -- as Cardinal Glemp remembers. Many meetings: Bucharest in 1998, which opened the way to John Paul II's visit to Romania; Jerusalem and many other parts of the world, year after year: 20 years of encounter, prayer, bonds and actions for peace. Energies of peace were released: think of some stories of real pacifications, such as Mozambique.

The wisdom of encounter has made us critical concerning the use of violence to solve conflicts, alarmed because of excessive hatred, because of mutual ignorance and the theorization of extraneousness: It convinced us that we need to meet, in any way, to dialogue and weave a fabric of friendship. We did not want to create an artificial international organization of religions; we wanted to practice the art of encounter, a contagious art.

Someone could say -- and it is repeated insistently every day -- that ours is a dangerous naivete, as we face belligerent and terrorist threats: irresponsible meekness. We are told so by the culture of conflict that imbues the thoughts of our contemporaries, which explains the world through the physics of politics and the metaphysics of destinies, which presents clashes and war as natural and unavoidable facts of history, as the destiny of entire religions and civilizations. This culture presents itself as realistic, but it is actually filled with dim pessimism. And pessimism often nourishes the worst of instincts.

We do not believe in unavoidable destinies, because when we observe it lucidly history is a mystery, if nothing else. We do not believe in the culture of conflict, for the 20th century has shown how two world wars, wars and slaughters, the Shoah, revolutions that were meant to create something new, and colonialism, with its pretence of promoting civilization, have deeply wounded entire peoples and stolen millions of human lives.

We feel we are supported in this by the humanity of the past century, but also by the ancient wisdom of peace that is embed in many religions.

John Paul II supported and augmented this wisdom of encounter. In one of the 18 messages he sent us he defined it as "a new way of meeting among believers of different religions, which avoids reciprocal contraposition and, even more, mutual disdain, and seeks constructive dialogue. This dialogue does not indulge in relativism or syncretism; it makes each of us open for the other, with esteem, conscious that God is the source of peace."

After 20 years, we do not feel worn out. We do not yield to new fashions or novel belligerent winds. We are not troubled by this repetition of an event, the event of Assisi, since religious traditions themselves teach that repetition leads deep into the heart. We believe the wisdom of encounter is even more necessary in this world of ours that seems to look for an order in the culture of conflict and the choices it inspires.

The world is a complex place: It resists the simplified order of friends and foes. We need a profound and direct experience of it if we want to remain human: We need to meet the others. Yesterday, Ayatollah Taskhiri told me with profound simplicity: "When people feel they do not need the other, they lose their humanity: They become inhuman."

We all need encounter. At the end of his life, the great Patriarch Athenagoras, who witnessed the opening of great divides and encountered many different peoples, used to say, "All peoples are good. They all deserve respect and admiration. I have seen men and women suffer. Everyone needs love. If people are evil, it is because they have still not met true love." We could also subscribe this statement, with even greater resolve after 20 years.

Indeed, men and women have gathered here, belonging to different religious traditions, from different stories and different cultures. Among us is the president of the republic of Burkina Faso, whom I greet with respect: He represents a country of happy coexistence of Christians and Muslims, but he also brings here among us the presence of sub-Saharan Africa.

We have always wanted Africa to speak. Its marginalization in the international life is a sign of a world that does not build peace. Africa, on the contrary, represents a huge resource for the world, and a test for international conscience at the same time.

The sorrow of the world makes us bend down on our religious traditions in search of that single richness the world has not: a message of peace that calls us to remove all violent feelings and rid ourselves of hatred. Meekness of heart, understanding, practicing dialogue to solve conflicts are the resources of believers and of the world. A year ago, speaking to the Muslim leaders in Cologne, Benedict XVI said: "We must not yield to fear or pessimism. Rather, we must cultivate optimism and hope. Interreligious and intercultural dialogue […] cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends."

Dialogue becomes a method and a choice. The medicine of dialogue enables to heal many misunderstands and conflicts between people and religions. Dialogue reveals that war and misunderstandings are not invincible.

We believe this. That is why we are here and why we will continue to meet in this spirit of peace, collaboration and dialogue, convinced that the common fabric of friendship holds back many energies of violence and evil, while it reinforces the strength of peace. The appeal for peace signed in Milan in 2004 ended with these words, which express our feelings: "First of all, though, we need to reform ourselves. Hatred, conflict and war must never find an incentive in religion. War can never be motivated by religion. May the words of religions be always words of peace!"

This is our hope, and it is supported by our faith and our conviction.

For this, I thank you.