It is a message sorely needed today, Pope Francis said at Assisi to leaders from world religions: authentic religion must only advocate peace and reconciliation among peoples, and never be used as an excuse for violence or war. Religious leaders must be “artisans of peace”.
Before leaving Rome for Assisi on 20 September, the Bishop of Rome said the meeting was for “prayer, penitence, and crying, because the world is at war. God, the father of all, Christians and not, wants peace. There’s no god of war, this is done by the devil”, who wants to “kill everyone”.
Religions working together for peace
Religious leaders gathered at Assisi over 18-20 September to reaffirm their commitment to walk together in the path of peace. Among the guests were victims of war, survivors of the Holocaust, and refugees. The gathering was sponsored by the Sant’Egidio Community in Rome, the Franciscan Friars, and the diocese of Assisi.
At the opening of the assembly on 18 September, with the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella present, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said that peace demands “an interior conversion, a change in policies and behaviours”. The patriarch is famous for his advocacy for creation and ecology, and worked closely with Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Sí. He said pollution is linked to poverty, and any ecological activity must be of benefit to the poor. He and Francis at Lesbos had lamented how migrants were treated with exclusion and violence.
Mohammad Sammak, secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, urged that the message of Assisi be spread, its spirit of “common belief and common respect”, that Christians and Muslims need not be enemies, as “the differences between religions can complement” each other.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka, on old friend of the Pope’s from Argentina, lamented the growing violence and hatred, along with the “exaggerated egoism” in politics and racist views by some leaders in established democracies. “The hope of peace, which is the core of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths, continues palpitating in the hearts of many”, he said.
Under the theme, Thirst for Peace: Religions & Cultures in Dialogue, different faith groups held more than 30 panels on conflict around the world, on overcoming violence and extremism, on caring for the environment, and on working together to overcome poverty and oppression.
Religions united against war & violence
On his arrival on 20 September, Pope Francis warmly and personally welcomed the 500 participants from nine world religions, including those from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, as well as from Christian denominations, including Alan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and even atheists.
Pope Francis deplored the great sickness of our time, “indifference” to human suffering, especially those who are victims of war or persecution, who thirst for peace and refuge, but often only meet with the “bitter vinegar of rejection”. War paralyses human sensitivity, and can give rise to a “new paganism” of indifference.
He appealed to all religious leaders to be a voice for those who are suffering and forgotten. “We have no weapons. We believe, however, in the meek and humble strength of prayer”, so that “wars, terrorism, and violence may end.” He continued that peacemaking must give first place to those who are suffering, resolving conflicts through dialogue, reconciliation, cooperation, and forgiveness.
Christians prayed together
Christians prayed together at the Lower Basilica of St Francis, while leaders of other religious groups prayed elsewhere according to their rites and traditions. At the ecumenical service, the names of countries experiencing violence and war were read out and a candle lit, including Syria, Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mexico.
Standing before an image of the crucified Christ, Francis prayed that Christians become “trees of life” which “absorb the contamination of indifference and restore the pure air of love to the world”.
“The victims of war, which sullies people with hate and the earth with arms, plead for peace; our brothers and sisters, who live under the threat of bombs and are forced to leave their homes into the unknown, stripped of everything, plead for peace.”
These are “the wounded and parched members of [Jesus’] body”, and, like him, often experience rejection. “Who listens to them? Who bothers responding to them? Far too often they encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered”.
Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby added that, despite the wealth of modern economies, “we find dissatisfaction and despair, in the breakdown of families, in hunger and inequality, in people who turn to extremism”. Yet the mercy of God reaches out to each and all of us.
Everyone loses in war, even the victors
In the closing ceremony, Pope Francis reiterated the words of Pope John Paul II, who was later present at Assisi in 1993 (during wars in the Balkans) and 2002 (following 9/11), that using religion to foment violence “contradicts religion’s deepest and truest inspiration”. He then quoted from Benedict XVI’s talk at Assisi in 2011 that violence “is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction”.
Francis said that their meeting “brought people together without denying their differences, giving life to real interreligious friendships… This is the spirit that animates us: to bring about encounters through dialogue, and to oppose every form of violence and abuse of religion which seeks to justify war and terrorism”. War leaves “a legacy of sorrows and hate. In war, everyone loses, including the victors”.
“The one who calls upon God’s name to justify terrorism, violence, and war does not follow God’s path. War in the name of religion becomes a war against religion itself. With firm resolve, therefore, let us reiterate that violence and terrorism are opposed to an authentic religious spirit.”
“Everyone can be an artisan of peace. Through this gathering in Assisi, we resolutely renew our commitment to be such artisans, by the help of God, together with all men and women of goodwill.”
Francis concluded: “We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone, and not war, is holy!”
Finally, representatives from the various religions signed an appeal for peace for governments to eliminate the causes of war, “the lust for power and money, the greed of arms dealers, personal interests and vendettas for past wrongs”, and the underlying causes of strife, poverty, injustice, and inequality.