Assisi 2011:Pilgrimage of All Religions and Non-believers

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The spirit of Assisi gatherings emphasizes the Catholic Church’s commitment to peace, justice and harmony, tells Dr. Markus Solo SVD, an official attached to the Pontifical Commission for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Vatican to Victor Edwin SJ in a recent interview.  Here is some excerpts of the interview.

Question: What is the significance of Assisi Peace Pilgrimage in the context of Catholic Church’s relations with other religions?

Answer: Pope Benedict XVI wished to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace (27 October 1986), Assisi (Assisi I) that was convoked by the Blessed Pope John Paul II by welcoming representatives from different religious traditions and no traditions. By commemorating the spirit of Assisi I again after 25 years at the same Italian town (Assisi II) on 27 October 2011, the present Holy Father underlines the commitment of the Catholic Church to the promotion of justice, peace and harmony everywhere in the world. The mission entrusted to the Church by the Lord Jesus to love others as they are and live in harmony with others is the source of inspiration for Assisi I and II. Through such gatherings the Catholic Church expresses herself as an instrument of peace in the footsteps of Saint Francis Assisi.

I found Assisi II significant in several important ways. First, it expresses the commitment to peace along with people of good will, whether they belong to a particular religious tradition or not. As I mentioned there were a few participants at Assisi II who do not belong to any religion. They are seekers of the truth, said the Holy Father. This comment affirms the close connection between human dignity and freedom of conscience.

Secondly, it reminds me of a great saying of John Lennon: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together becomes reality”. The dream of both Assisi I and Assisi II is to pray and work together for peace and justice in the spirit of brotherhood, friendship and togetherness.

Thirdly, the leaders at Assisi 2011 expressed their concern for justice, peace and harmony. The messages of the leaders highlighted the truth of universal brotherhood and friendship beyond the diversities in order to collaborate for the common good of all men and women regardless of religion, culture, ethnicity, etc. There is a common responsibility to increase dialogue and mutual understanding based on the richness of our religious traditions. This is a must.

Q: Kindly explain to us the different events of Assisi II?

A: The initiative was announced by the Pope while he prayed the Angelus on the day of world peace January 1, 2011. The State Secretariat coordinated this event with the help of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and Pontifical Council for Culture.

On 27 October 2011, all the religious leaders (around 300 people) took a train trip to Assisi. Among the religious leaders there were Heads of delegations and the accompanying persons. The Heads of delegations were seated along with the Holy Father while the accompanying persons settled in the audience. The first meeting took place in the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli. In the morning session the religious leaders offered reflection on religion and peace. At the end of that session all had a frugal meal along with the Pope in solidarity with all who suffer hunger, disease, wars and conflicts. After the meal the participants had a quiet and reflective time.

In the afternoon all the participants gathered along with the Holy Father at the hillside for the concluding event. In this touching moment, all participants renewed their commitment to peace. At the end of the renewal of the commitment, all religious leaders received oil-candles, not the liturgical candle, in order to avoid a particularity of Christianity in an interreligious event. They all sang the well-known hymn of Assisi: “Make me an in instrument of peace…” The following day, Pope met all of them at a private audience in the Vatican. After the audience the Holy See offered a lunch for all.

Q: What was the special message of the Holy Father to the participants and to the world?

A: “Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth Justice and Peace, Forgiveness, Life and Love”, said the Holy Father. He underlined our common responsibility to put these commitments into practice. He also brought to our awareness that in order to reach real and sincere peace and harmony, it is necessary to purify religions from all the deviations, misinterpretations and wrong practices, especially the attempts to instrumentalize religion in the service of hidden agenda.

Q: Why do the “the pilgrimage aspect” is emphasized and “coming together to pray/ praying together” aspect is de-emphasized in this edition of Assisi Meeting?

A: Pope would like to include all, believers and unbelievers alike in this event. All should be aware of the necessity of justice and peace. All people of good will should be included in this kind of collaboration, travelling together to a common goal. Prayer presumes religion. In fact there were also non-believers (atheists). Pilgrimage is a neutral and appropriate word for such an action/event.

The event of that day differed from that of 25 years ago, something intentionally planned by Pope Benedict, who, recognizing the idea that believers too are constantly journeying towards God, saw the possibility, indeed the necessity, of speaking and entering into dialogue with everyone, believers and non-believers alike, without sacrificing one’s own identity or indulging in forms of syncretism. To the extent that the pilgrimage of truth is authentically lived, it opens the path to dialogue with others, excluding no one and committing everyone to become a builder of fraternity and peace.

 

Q: What is something very new in this Assisi Pilgrimage 2011?

A: The new aspect is that of a pilgrim journeying through life emphasizing that we travel together on the way, in silence and prayer; renewing our commitment to peace. There was no common prayer. More Muslim participants from Asia attended this meeting. There were representative from people who do not believe in God.

 

Q: How was the Muslim participation in Assisi this year?

A: In contrast to the only two Asian Muslim participants in Assisi I, a good number of Asian Muslims participated in Assisi II. First, it is an affirmation of the fact that Asian Muslims outnumber European and American Muslims. Secondly, the Asian Muslims are interested in the inter-religious activities of the Holy See and support it through their presence.

There were twelve Muslim participants in Assisi II including Mulana, Mohammad Zubair Abid, from Pakistan, an Imam and head of the Pakistani Ulama council. Two participants from Indonesia: Mr. Nashihin Hasan from the International Conference of Islamic Scholars (ICIS) which is an initiative of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Prof. Syamsuddin, the President of Muhammadiyah, both represent two biggest Islamic Mass-Organizations in Indonesia and in the world as well. They have been elected due to their significant influence in the socio-religious and public life of the Muslims in Indonesia. NU has around 30 million members; Muhammadiyah around 29 million. The 6 participants from Bangladesh are from the Islamic Foundation, which is an Islamic national body with strong links with the national Government. The two representatives from Thailand were from the national Muslim community; the leader, Mr. Aziz Pitakumpol, was not able to participate, due to ill-health. Similarly the Indian Muslim leader, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, with 6 followers could not attend due to the same reason.

It was difficult to choose only one Muslim leader who speaks on behalf of all the Muslims on the world, as it is in the case of the Catholic Church, Lutherans, Buddhism, Hinduism. Therefore some Muslim leaders were asked to speak on behalf of their countries or institutions. Thus, all the participants were elected from the significant and influential institutions. We hope that the good message of Assisi event will be spread widely in Asian countries with Muslim majority with their various interreligious problems and challenges, in order to mobilize people in broad spectrum for global justice, peace and harmony.

 

Q: Christian communities are virtually disappearing in some of the West Asian countries as the result of relentless violence against them. How do these real life situations impact interfaith pilgrimage at Assisi?

A: This issue was mentioned at least in two reflections during the morning session. Particularly the issue of Jerusalem as a representative issue for all others. Unfortunately there was no clear and direct mention of such real cases. It was surely intentionally avoided due to its sensitivity. But, based on the reflections, the religious leaders would know what to do in order to avoid such discriminations and all kinds of violence in order to live in peace and harmony.

 

Q: What is your experience of participating in the pilgrimage?

A: Assisi meeting was an inspiring moment, a joy of being on the way, together with the Holy Father and such a big number of the religious leaders. I was seated among the Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sihks, Jains, Shinto, Confucianists, etc, whom I never met or saw before. All had the same concern in mind: Justice, peace and harmony. All were friendly, smiled and gave the impression of real friendship. Some invited me to visit them in their home countries. Friendship occurs spontaneously when anchored on the common experience of being together on the way. The message was loud and clear: No more war, no more terrorism, no more violence, and no more discrimination. Love must reign in the world.

 

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