Pope Benedict XVI told 300 religious leaders at Assisi today that people who are suspicious of religion cannot be blamed for questioning God’s existence when they see believers use religion to justify violence.
At the historic gathering in the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, the Pope said: “All their struggling and questioning is, in part, an appeal to believers to purify their faith so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.”
Marking the 25th anniversary of the first Assisi interfaith gathering for peace, hosted by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1986, Pope Benedict brought together the religious leaders and – for the first time – several 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, as well as 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 isn’t 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, those who have not found faith, but are seeking, also are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”.
“These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God,” he said.
“They challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others,” the Pope said.
Sitting to the Pope’s right were Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop 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. He chanted a poem, shaking a rattle made of an animal tusk.
Eleven of the Pope’s guests spoke before Pope Benedict did.
Patriarch Bartholomew said the 25 years since Blessed John Paul II’s Assisi gathering have included the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the Arab Spring democracy movement “which has not put an end to tensions between communities”.
“The place of religions in the changes under way remains ambiguous,” the patriarch said, echoing the concerns of many Christians that more radical followers of Islam may not protect the rights of Christian minorities in the countries that have thrown off dictatorships.
“We must oppose the deformation of the message and symbols of religion by perpetrators of violence,” said the Orthodox spiritual leader.
Dr Williams 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”.
The Rev Olav Fykse Tveit, a Lutheran minister and secretary-general of the World Council of Churches, urged the leaders to do more to assist and guide their young people, who can be the source of new energy for change – like with the Arab Spring – or can express their frustrations through violence.
He also pleaded with all the religious leaders present to pray and work for peace in Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims and a symbol of ongoing tensions among people of different faiths.
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.
Hasyim Muzadi, general secretary of the Indonesia-based International Conference of Islamic Scholars, could not attend, but sent a speech. He said people of different faiths must work together to build on something they all share: “a hope for the creation of human harmony, justice, prosperity and an improved standard of human life”.