ROME (Oct. 29)
Delegations representing 12 of the world’s major religions offered prayers for peace at Assisi Monday, each according to its own tradition and in a multiplicity of languages. They gathered in that medieval town at the invitation of Pope John Paul II for an unprecedented display of ecumenicity in the cause of peace, and though each group prayed separately, all were of a single voice.
The Jewish delegation, headed by Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, was the most visible, not because of its numbers which were disappointingly small, but because it was the only faith that chose to pray outdoors.
About 60 men, women and children huddled together, sitting or standing around a long brown table in a cobblestoned alleyway, facing a building that housed a synagogue in the 14th century. The site was selected by Toaff, in order, he said, “to be close to the Jewish families who once lived here and from whom Francis of Assisi is said to have descended, and whose doctrine was closely related to and influenced by 11th-century German Judaism.”
Toaff led a study session, reading excerpts from the Torah, Talmud and Mishneh relation to various aspects of peace. The Jewish group offered this prayer: “Our God in heaven, the Lord of Peace will have compassion and mercy upon us and upon all the peoples of the earth who implore his mercy and his compassion, asking for peace, seeking peace.”
Praying simultaneously in churches and buildings scattered around the town were delegations from the various Christian denominations, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, Jainists, Shintoists, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and Bahai; also Africans and American Indians.
The Jewish group was mainly from Rome and other Italian communities. There were 30 youths from Rome’s Jewish high school, a couple from Florence, a Jew from Paris, and a few Israelis. The relatively small numbers of Jews from abroad was attributed to the Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret holidays that ended only Sunday night, during which observant Jews do not travel.
DEARTH OF JEWISH PARTICIPATION DECRIED
But some of those present complained to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency over the dearth of Jewish representation from the U.S., Europe and Israel. “They could have come sooner and celebrated Simchat Torah with us in Rome,” said Oscar Laufer, a high school student.
Miriam di Castro, a young member of WIZO, explained to the JTA why she joined the group. “I’m tired of politicized peace rallies. It’s a relief to be able to join a Jewish group participating in a worldwide prayer for peace instead,” she said.
The prayer sessions ended with the distribution of olive branches and plants by about 30 youths, including six Jewish youngsters wearing blue and white skull caps.
For “theological” and historic reasons stemming from Vatican Council II 20 years ago, the Jews were included in the “Christian” rather than the “non-Christian” delegations. Thus they found themselves in the forefront of the final procession to the Basilica.
“The warmth with which we were greeted on the way by the Assisi townspeople, was exceptional,” Dr. Joseph Lichten, the Rome representative of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, told the JTA.
In the piazza, an Italian Buddhist group broke out into the Hebrew song, “Hayveinu Shalom Aleichem” (We Welcome You).