VATICAN CITY, Oct 25 – Pope Benedict XVI has invited 300 religious leaders to a meeting in Assisi in Italy to repudiate “violence in the name of God” amid growing tensions fuelled by fundamentalists across the world.
The day of interreligious council, which will be held on Thursday in St. Francis of Assisi’s birthplace, is intended to be a “journey of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world,” the Vatican said.
Over 50 Islamic representatives are expected to attend the talks from several countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
They will be joined by Rabbis, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, a Zoroastrian, a Bahai and representatives of Taoism and Confucianism as well as of other traditional religions from Africa and America.
For the first time, four atheists will also attend the meeting, which is traditionally organised so as not to coincide with the Muslim day of prayer on Friday, the Jewish one on Saturday or the Christian one on Sunday.
However, the Imam from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a heavyweight authority on Sunnism, will not be coming, having fallen out with the pope after he urged Egypt to protect Christians from attacks by radical Islamists.
The meeting is being criticised by Catholic fundamentalists who are strongly against the idea of dialogue with other religions. French fundamentalist Regis de Cacqueray said 1,000 masses would be needed to be said in reparation.
The event marks the 25th anniversary of the first interreligious meeting in Assisi, organised by John Paul II in 1986 as a “day of prayer” inspired by the United Nation’s proclamation of an International Year of the Peace.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, chose not to attend because of concerns shared by traditionalists that it risked mixing religions into a vague common belief.
While guests attending this year’s encounter — the third in Assisi — will in principle follow a “common course”, those who wish to pray will do so separately, according to their beliefs, the Holy See has said.
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who helped organise the first Assisi day in 1986, said John Paul II had been careful to avoid mixing beliefs, and Benedict XVI was no different.
“Interreligious dialogue has spread” over the last 25 years, and the pope sees it “as a common, irrevocable heritage of Christian sensibility,” he said.
The pope’s main aim is for participants to agree to “a common commitment to reject the instrumentalism of religion and the use of violence in the name of God,” said a Vatican insider.
Number two of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Pier Luigi Celata, said the problems that particularly concern religions are immigration, cultural diversity, religious liberty and the defence of the family.
“These issues oblige faithful people from different religions to look for common solutions,” he said.
At the end of the day of talks, the main participants will renew their commitment to peace in the square in front of St. Francis’ Basilica.
A burning torch will be symbolically presented to the delegations in the hope that they will take the message back with them to their communities.