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Pope calls for peace gathering, fast


Asserting that “religion must never become the motive for conflict,” Pope John Paul II has, for the third time in his pontificate, invited religious leaders from around the world to join him in Assisi to pray for peace. The gathering in Assisi, birthplace of peacemaker St. Francis, will take place Jan. 24.

At the same time, the pope asked Catholics to abstain from food on Dec. 14, the final day this year of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk every day of the month.

In addition, the pope has called on Catholic leaders to a meet at the Vatican Dec. 13, the day before the fast, to talk about the future of Christians in the Holy Land.

John Paul announced the Assisi conference Nov. 18 and the call to fast. “We cannot fail to recall the heavy suffering that has afflicted and continues to afflict so many of our brothers and sisters in the world,” the pope said during his Sunday Angelus address.

He announced the summit on the Middle East on Nov. 23, expressing concern that violence in the Holy Land had prompted a virtual halt to visits by Christians the region’s holy Christian sites. The pope, inviting bishops and leaders of various Catholic rites in the region, said the meeting would be “purely pastoral” rather than political.

In regard to the meeting in Assisi, the pope referred to “the thousands of innocent victims in the extremely serious attacks of Sept. 11; the innumerable persons forced to abandon their homes to confront the unknown and sometimes a bloody death; women, the elderly and children exposed to the risk of dying from cold and hunger.”

The pope said the Christian season of Advent, which began Dec. 2, is, like Ramadan, a time of spiritual discipline and prayer, and thus asked Catholics to set aside Dec. 14 as a day of fasting.

“Let us pray to God with fervor that he grant the world a stable peace founded on justice,” John Paul said.

The pope proposed that whatever food Catholics renounce Dec. 14 “be placed at the disposition of the poor, especially those who suffer from the consequences of terrorism and war.”

In the same remarks, John Paul announced an invitation to religious leaders, above all Muslims, to join him in Assisi Jan. 24 for prayer that religion never be “a motive of conflict, hate or violence.”

“In this historic moment, humanity needs to see gestures of peace and to hear words of hope,” the pope said.

Early indications suggest that religious leaders are responding positively to the Nov. 18 initiatives.

“We are ready to participate in every initiative to help the oppressed and to recall for the world the values of peace and the exercise of good,” said Muhammed Sayyed Tantawi, grand imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

“The differences between religious faiths must not impede cooperation among their faithful,” Tantawi said in an interview with the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire.

Tulla Zevi, president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Italy, was equally enthusiastic.

“The pope is trying to stop this fanaticism that threatens to submerge us all,” Zevi said. “I believe that our effort should be directed at creating an international movement of moderates, against this international network of terrorists. ”

Missionaries of Africa Fr. Justo Lacunza Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, told NCR that he has not heard a single negative reaction to the papal initiatives in the Islamic world.

“Islam is in pain, because of these terrorist acts falsely carried out in its name. These gestures of sympathy are thus received with a welcoming heart,” Lacunza Balda said. “This brings Christians and Muslims together, because it means we share in our tragedies, in our history, in our good times and bad.”

John Paul has long had a special affinity for Assisi, symbolic heart of Christianity’s pacifist and ecumenical impulses. He visited Assisi on Nov. 5, 1978, less than a month after becoming pope, the very first of 140 pastoral visits to various points in Italy.

On Oct. 27, 1986, the pope convened a summit of religious leaders in Assisi to pray for peace. At the height of the Bosnian war, John Paul summoned Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders to Assisi Jan. 9 and 10, 1993, to offer prayers for a speedy end to the conflict.

The much-heralded 1986 gathering generated controversy. Some Catholic conservatives felt it smacked of “syncretism,” the blending of different religions, as if all were of equal value. It occasioned one of the few public criticisms of the pope by his top doctrinal lieutenant, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who bluntly told a German newspaper: “This cannot be the model.” Rebel right-wing French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who broke with the pope in 1988 by ordaining his own bishops, labeled the summit “the supreme imposture, the culminating insult to Our Lord.”

Under the weight of such criticism, Vatican officials took a standoffish stance to pan-religious gatherings, waiting until October 1999 to convene a similar session. Meanwhile the Community of Sant’Egidio picked up the initiative, holding an annual interreligious gathering “in the spirit of Assisi.”

Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told NCR Nov. 26 that “great care will be taken to be sure that we give the right message,” meaning that any hint of syncretism will be avoided.

At press time, Vatican officials told NCR that a program and a list of participants for the Assisi gathering was still in preparation.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001