Papal pilgrimage will unite Muslims, Chinese Buddhists, Japanese Shintoists, Native Americans, Zoroastrians and atheist philosophers

More than 300 delegates from dozens of Christian churches, the world’s major religions and non-believers will join Pope Benedict XVI in Assisi next week for a peace gathering focused more on common pilgrimage than on prayer, a Vatican official has said.

For the first time, a Buddhist delegation from mainland China will join a Vatican-sponsored interreligious meeting and, also for the first time, three non-believers – two philosophers and an economist – have accepted a papal invitation to attend.

The delegates, invited to Assisi by Pope Benedict XVI to mark the 25th anniversary of Blessed John Paul II’s interreligious gathering for peace, come from more than 50 countries, Vatican officials said at a news conference.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said each participant would be given a room in a Franciscan guesthouse where he or she could rest, reflect and pray after lunch and before an afternoon pilgrimage.

“During the pilgrimage, the walk, in silence,” the participants are likely to pray, but “the real prayer will be here at St Peter’s on the vigil [next Wednesday, October 26] when the Holy Father is with the Catholic faithful.”

Instead of holding his weekly general audience, the Pope will lead a special prayer service in preparation for the Assisi event.

Unlike Blessed John Paul’s first Assisi meeting in 1986, there is no moment planned in Assisi when participants will pray in each other’s presence.

“The emphasis is on pilgrimage rather than on praying together,” Cardinal Turkson said.

He said the change was not meant as a judgment on Blessed John Paul’s Assisi meetings, but an attempt to be clear that members of different religions are not praying together and to ensure that the specific identity and the differences of each religion are being respected.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Jewish leaders from Italy will be among the delegates.

Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said 176 participants will represent non-Christian, non-Jewish religions.

While there have been some bumps in the road of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, he said the Muslim participation shows how much progress has been made in the dialogue in the past 25 years. At the 1986 Assisi meeting, 11 Muslims participated, he said, while in 2002 there were 32 Muslim representatives and this year there will be 50.

However, the prestigious Muslim university, al-Azhar in Cairo, will not be sending a delegation. Archbishop Celata said the Vatican’s formal dialogue with the university remains “frozen” after leaders there complained that Pope Benedict was interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs when he condemned attacks on Christians late last year. The archbishop said he also thought the current upheaval in Egypt’s national life could be part of the reason why the university will not participate; the leader of al-Azhar was appointed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

The Assisi gathering will include 31 separate Christian delegations, according to Fr Andrea Palmieri, an official at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The 17 Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox delegations will include Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

Also participating are Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Rev Olav Fykse Tveit, a Lutheran minister and secretary-general of the World Council of Churches.

Other delegates will represent traditional religions of Native Americans, Africans and Asians; Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Bahai, Confucian, Taoist, Shinto delegations will also participate.