Pope leads interfaith gathering for world peace at Assisi

Pope leads interfaith gathering for world peace at Assisi

In the Vatican’s most wide-scale effort yet to reach out to other faiths, Pope Benedict XVI today welcomed Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, African tribal faiths, and even atheists and agnostics to call for world peace.

Benedict presided over a meeting of more than 300 religious leaders in the Umbrian hilltop town of Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis, timed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a one-day prayer for peace that took place at the same spot, called by Pope John Paul II amid the tensions of the cold war.

The meeting had more participants and was more inclusive than the earlier event; the participation of monks from mainland China and four non-believers was part of Benedict’s effort to reach out to atheists and agnostics. But it featured fewer recognizable faces than the 1986 gathering, during which the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa joined John Paul in prayer.

“Francis was a young man when he surrendered his life to God,” said  Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, who attended the gathering. “We need the vision and the courage of young people for the necessary changes, as we see how they lead processes of democratization and peace in many countries today.”

One at a time, the participants stood and vowed to work for justice and peace in the world. But unlike the 1986 event, they did not pray together. Benedict, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had disapproved of members of different faiths praying in the same spot.

Italian television showed scenes of large and enthusiastic crowds gathered at the event and along a kind of parade route set up for Benedict and some of the other leaders to arrive at the meeting.

The Italian media reported that some traditionalists groups criticized the Assisi gathering, saying it was “blasphemy” for the pope to host a meeting featuring so many leaders of “false religions” to pray to their Gods together. The Society of Pius X said it would celebrate a thousand masses to atone for the harm done by the meeting. Members held up signs calling on non-Catholics in attendance to convert to Catholicism.

A statement from the Vatican said the meetings were also attended by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, and Belarusian Orthodox churches, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian protestants, Sikhs, believers in the Shinto faith, Daoists, Jainists, and one Zoroastrian.

By Eric Lyman, Ecumenical News International

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