Religious Leaders Gather in Italy for Prayers Sparked by Sept. 11

Rabbis will join dozens of religious leaders from around the world this week in central Italy to pray for peace and condemn violence committed in the name of religion.

“Never again violence! Never again war! Never again terrorism!” is the title of the Vatican-organized interfaith encounter in the town of Assisi.

Participants in Thursday’s “Day of Prayer for Peace in the World” will be responding to an urgent invitation issued by Pope John Paul II two months ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington and the ensuing war in Afghanistan.

“At this historic moment, humanity needs to see gestures of peace and listen to words of hope,” the pope said at the time.

Warning that the threat of terrorism is “always constant,” he added, “The more insurmountable the difficulties seem, the darker the prospects, so much more intense should our prayer to God become to implore him for the gift of mutual understanding, of concord and peace.”

According to the Vatican, more than 100 religious leaders, including about two dozen Muslims, are converging on Assisi, an ancient pilgrimage center that was the birthplace of St. Francis.

They will make the pilgrimage with the pope in a special two-hour train journey from the Vatican.

According to the Vatican, about a dozen Jewish leaders from Israel, the United States, Latin America and Europe are set to take part, most of them figures who have long been involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue.

Among them are Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut; Rabbi Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress; French Chief Rabbi Samuel Rene Sirat; and Rabbi Henry Sobel, from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“Obviously, the value of the Assisi meeting is essentially symbolic and educational,” said David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s International Director of Interreligious Relations, who also is participating.

“If religious representatives are seen coming together in mutual respect to strive for a better world, it sends a powerful message of positive regard for other faith traditions and presents religion as a force for good,” Rosen told JTA.

“For those who do not respect the other and those who are hostile to religion it will not have much of an initial effect, but educational processes of any lasting kind are not sudden,” he said. “For Jews, Judaism and Israel, it is extremely important to be seen in such a constructive light and context, especially at a time when anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head again so extensively in so many places.”

Other participants include representatives of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, traditional African religions and other faiths.

The Peace Day ceremonies will begin with public reflections on peace by the representatives of various religions and an address by the pope, but members of the different faith communities will not pray together.

After the preliminary statements, representatives of each group will be taken to separate locations where they can pray according to their own rites.

They then will meet again in an open square near the looming Basilica of St. Francis for a ceremony including the lighting of candles and statements in English, Arabic and Italian expressing a commitment to peace.

Since Sept.11, the pope repeatedly has condemned the concept of violence in the name of religion and warned about the “dark clouds” hanging over the global horizon.

The pope returned to the theme Sunday, when he told the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square of his hopes for the Assisi meeting.

“After the tragic attack of Sept. 11, which is always present in our memory, and facing the risk of new conflicts, believers feel the urgency of intensifying their prayers for peace, because peace is above all the gift of God,” he said. “Given the violence that today touches many regions of the earth, they feel the need to show that religions are a factor of solidarity, discrediting and isolating those who manipulate the name of God for motives and with methods that in reality offend him.”

The pope hosted a similar interfaith meeting in Assisi in October 1986.

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