“Thirst for Peace: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”, organized in Assisi by the Community of Sant’Egidio on September 18-20, 2016, has certainly been a landmark event for the promotion of reconciliation and conflicts resolution in a world increasingly marred by conflicts, extremism and violence. Thirty years after the historical “Day of Prayer for Peace” promoted by Pope John Paul II, numerous leaders and high representatives of the world’s religions convened in the city of Saint Francis to relaunch the “Spirit of Assisi”. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Taoists, Jainists, Zoroastrians, and others: the array of colours and the variety of dress codes bore witness to the encounter of all these groups, joined together by the commitment to uphold interreligious and intercultural dialogue to address the causes of crises and instabilities, ushering in a new era of peace, societal harmony and development.
The proceedings featured prominent panelists from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and America, who examined challenging topics such as the “test of coexistence between Christians and Muslims”, with a particular focus on Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Sudan and Nigeria. The Archbishop of Karachi Joseph Coutts drew the attention of the audience to the significant contribution of the Pakistani Christians in the field of education, healthcare, social assistance and philanthropy. He also shed the light on the policies that could guarantee a better sense of inclusion and participation among them.
In regard to migration and the refugee crisis, it was highlighted that the future of Europe is increasingly intertwined with the countries from which most of the asylum seekers are coming. The idea of keeping Europe isolated from the developments in Africa and South-West Asia, besides the South Mediterranean and the Middle East, is a dangerous delusion: other than unrealistic, this approach continues to trigger xenophobia, which is opposite to the core values embedded in the European identity, namely pluralism and tolerance, which should inspire the integration policies.
Pluralism and tolerance were also discussed in the panel on Asia and its multireligious scenario, while a special session was devoted to the tragedy playing out in Aleppo, Syria, with the testimony of Tamar Mikalli, a woman who fled the city plagued by years of suffering. She reminded of the pre-war times, when Aleppo was at peace and there was a peaceful coexistence among different religions. The outburst of the conflict disrupted her life so much so that she decided to leave her birthplace and took the opportunity to take refuge in Italy, thanks to the “humanitarian corridor” promoted by the Community of Sant’Egidio.
After the prayer for peace and the peace procession, the meeting was concluded by Pope Francis, who addressed a large number of audience on the incompatibility between war and religion. As the Pope reminded right before heading to Assisi, “God, the Father of everyone… desires peace. There is no God of war”. Therefore, “whoever uses religion to foment violence contradicts religion’s deepest and truest inspiration”, he said to the thousands of people gathered to follow his speech. This concept was also pointed out in the Appeal for Peace that the Pontiff launched at the end of the event: “War in the name of religion becomes a war against religion itself. With firm resolve… let us reiterate that violence and terrorism are opposed to an authentic religious spirit”. Such a strong rejection of extremism had an extraordinary international resonance, and made clear that there is no actual connection between religion and the use of violence, unless the former gets to be exploited for purposes which do not correspond to its inner nature and rationale.
Thus, Assisi’s annual meeting confirmed to be a unique platform to advance the culture of dialogue, reconciliation, cooperation and interreligious coexistence. Pope Francis’ call to be “artisans of peace” set the way forward for the 2017 meeting and for the commitment of each one of us to opposing “every form of violence and abuse of religion, which seeks to justify war and terrorism”, and to eradicating “the underlying causes of conflicts: poverty, injustice and inequality, the exploitation of and contempt for human life”.