CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Pope Benedict walks with other religious leaders in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 27.
ASSISI, ITALY – Taking 300 religious leaders with him on pilgrimage to Assisi, Pope Benedict said people who are suspicious of religion cannot be blamed for questioning God's existence when they see believers use religion to justify violence.
"All their struggling and questioning is, in part, an appeal to believers to purify their faith so that God, the true God, becomes accessible," the pope said Oct. 27.
Marking the 25th anniversary of the first Assisi interfaith gathering for peace, hosted by Blessed John Paul II in 1986, Pope Benedict brought together the religious leaders as well as four philosophers who describe themselves as humanists or seekers who do not identify with any single religion.
After a train ride of almost two hours from the Vatican, Pope Benedict and his guests arrived in Assisi and were driven to the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels for the morning gathering focused on "testimonies for peace."
Entering the basilica before the pope, the delegates created an unusually colourful congregation: They wore white, black or crimson robes or business suits; on their heads were skullcaps, turbans, scarves or veils.
The pope condemned the use of religion to excuse violence and the use of violence to impose a religion. He also spoke against the growing violence resulting from "the loss of humanity" that comes from denying the existence of God and of objective moral standards.
"As a Christian, I want to say at this point: Yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame," Pope Benedict said.
Christian leaders, like all religious leaders, he said, must work constantly to help their followers purify their faith and be "an instrument of God's peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans."
But a lack of religion is not the answer to world peace, he said.
The Nazi death camps clearly proved that "the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria (for judging right and wrong) and leads him to violence," the pope said.
On the other hand, he said, many nonbelievers also are "pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace."
CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Delegates representing various religions are seen arriving for an interfaith peace meeting with Pope Benedict in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 27.
Sitting to the pope's right were Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, and to his left were Rabbi David Rosen, representing the chief rabbinate of Israel, and Wande Abimbola, president of a Nigerian institute that promotes the study of the culture and traditional religion of the Yoruba people.
Abimbola chanted a poem, shaking a rattle made of an animal tusk or horn.
Eleven of the pope's guests spoke before Pope Benedict did and, after the morning session, the pope invited the delegates to a "frugal lunch" of rice and vegetables, salad, fruit and juice.
Patriarch Bartholomew sat on one side of the pope, while Williams sat on the other. Thirteen other delegates - including Christians, a Muslim, a follower of Tenrikyo, a Buddhist and a nonbeliever - also were seated at the head table.
In the afternoon, the pope and 13 other leaders renewed their commitments to peace in the square in front of the church's lower level.
The leaders affirmed the obligation of love of neighbour, the conviction that true faith never can be used to justify violence, the responsibility religious leaders have to educate their followers to respect others and the need to continue interreligious dialogue.
After a moment of silence, the pope and other leaders were handed oil lamps similar to the one that burns before the tomb of St. Francis, just a few steps behind the stage. The event ended with the delegates exchanging a sign of peace and Pope Benedict exchanging big smiles with the crowd.
Doves were released and one landed on the hand of one of the delegates who, beaming, gracefully lifted the bird above his head and showed it off.
Before leaving, the pope told the leaders, "We will continue to meet" and to "be united in this journey of dialogue" for the good of the world.
During the morning session in the basilica, Williams, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, told the participants they must help the world see how much wisdom religions have to offer "in the struggle against the foolishness of a world still obsessed with fear and suspicion, still in love with the idea of a security based on defensive hostility, and still capable of tolerating or ignoring massive loss of life among the poorest through war and disease."
A Hindu representative from India, Shrivatsa Goswami, said the leaders needed to ask themselves why interreligious dialogue has not had a greater impact on the world situation in the last 25 years.
"Are we missing the inward part of the journey?" he asked.
"Dialogue will be a futile exercise unless we undertake it with humility, forbearance, and the desire to respect the 'other,'" whether or not they return that respect, he said.