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Under the big prayer tent in Assisi

Assisi, Italy

Under an evangelical-style prayer tent in front of Assisi’s lower basilica, John Paul II, along with leaders of 11 world religions and at least a dozen Christian churches, issued a strong cry for peace Jan. 24.

It was a rejection both of terrorism and the injustice that sometimes fuels it.

“Violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion,” the religious leaders affirmed in a statement, portions of which were read in 10 languages.

“As we condemn every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or religion, we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to eliminate the root causes of terrorism,” the statement said.

The day concluded with the religious leaders exchanging a ceremonial sign of peace.

Imams in turbans, Sikh clergy with flowing white beards, and Buddhist monks with saffron robes and shaved heads joined a gaggle of Catholic cardinals, Orthodox patriarchs and Protestant ministers in Assisi, home to Catholicism’s popular peacemaker St. Francis.

As the gathering unfolded, scattered notes of criticism were heard, about topics ranging from the vacuous nature of much of the language to the assembly’s overwhelmingly masculine makeup. Theological concerns about relativism, the belief that one religion is as good as another, also hung around the edges.

Most participants, however, seemed enthusiastic.

“John Paul II, only you could have brought us together like this,” said Rabbi Israel Singer, head of the World Jewish Congress, leading the crowd under the tent in cheers.

Speaking to the delegates, Singer issued a challenge with special resonance in the context of Jewish/Islamic tension in the Middle East.

“What you should tell your people, and we should tell ours, is that we must ask if land and places are more important than people’s lives. Until we learn to do that, there will be no peace,” Singer said.

When he finished, the rabbi pivoted and gave John Paul a smart salute.

Heading into Assisi, observers were anxious to hear what Muslim leaders would say about links between Islam and terrorism. Most rejected any such tie in strong terms.

Asked if it is possible to be a terrorist and a good Muslim, Imam Mahmoud Hammad Ibrahim Sheweitah, a teacher of Islamic law, responded with a sharp “No, it is not.”

At the same time, Muslim delegates balanced their rejection of violence with strong political language.

“Compliance with international norms is necessary for peace,” said Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan at an interreligious assembly Jan. 23 at the Vatican’s synod hall. “This includes Palestine, Afghanistan, and the ongoing misery of Iraq, the land of prophets whose parents lament five million doomed children.”

On the Catholic side, a significant endorsement of Assisi came from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s top doctrinal official.

It “will give an impulse for peace in the world, because people can see that the religions are making peace among themselves,” said Ratzinger, a last-minute addition to the lineup.

Ratzinger has been associated with criticism of the interreligious summit in 1986 on the grounds that it promoted relativism. On Jan. 23, two members of the Italian Northern League, a right-wing political movement, resurrected the complaint.

“To pray with heretics, schismatics, rabbis, mullahs, witch doctors and various idolaters creates confusion among Catholic believers,” they said.

Ratzinger’s name was not on the official Vatican-issued list of attendees, but his presence was taken as an implicit rejection of such criticism. Asked about the potential for relativism, he was curt.

“It is a simple fact that other religions exist, and we have to take note of this,” he said.

The low number of female participants, estimated at perhaps two dozen out of more than 200, brought criticism from Swamiji Agnivesh, a Hindu.

“We are all brothers and sisters. But where are the sisters in this great hall?” he asked during the interreligious assembly Jan. 23. “They are few and far between.”

Others complained that the event’s lofty language didn’t address real-world problems.

“The Vatican is a state, with its own protocol and language,” said Sheikh Ahmed Khalifa Niasse of Senegal, a Muslim. “The issue is how to get frank discussion between the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

John Paul and most of the delegates arrived at Assisi aboard a train that departed from the little-used Vatican railway station, constructed under terms of the 1929 Lateran Pacts with Mussolini. The event recalled a famous train journey by Pope John XXIII from the Vatican to Assisi on Oct. 4, 1962.

The seven-car express was dubbed the “prayer train” by the Italian press. Along the two-hour ride to Assisi, crowds gathered at various points to wave scarves, roll videotape and cheer the pope.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002