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Added Urgency to Interfaith Talks Following Sept. 11 Terror Attacks

January 30, 2002
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Events like the recent interfaith peace day organized by the Vatican — and the interfaith programming that will accompany the World Economic Forum this week in New York — are increasingly important in a world threatened by religious extremism, leading rabbis say.

“After Sept.11, it is more important than ever that religion be seen as potentially part of the solution rather than the problem,” said David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs.

Rosen was one of about 200 rabbis, imams, priests and patriarchs from a dozen world faiths who converged Jan. 24 on Assisi, the central Italian town where St. Francis was born, for a “Day of Prayer for Peace in the World.”

He also will attend religious programming alongside the World Economic Forum, which will be held later this week in New York instead of its customary location in Davos, Switzerland.

“Especially seeing and hearing about Muslim leaders embracing Jewish and Christian leaders, and pledging themselves to peace and refuting the violent abuse of religion, sends a powerful message against stereotyping and hostile prejudice,” Rosen told JTA about the Assisi event.

Such prejudice and stereotyping, he said, is “what compounds, if not nurtures, the violence in the first place.”

The participants in Assisi were responding to an urgent invitation from Pope John Paul II in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington and the ensuing war in Afghanistan.

The aim was to hammer home the message that religion must never be used as an excuse for violence, war or terrorism.

Participants concluded their day of prayer, reflection and meditation with a joint declaration proclaiming a “firm conviction that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion.”

They committed themselves “to doing everything possible to eliminate the root causes of terrorism” and also committed themselves to the principles of dialogue and forgiveness.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation said it was important that this message was sent out by representatives of so many different faiths — not just Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but also Buddhism, Shintoism and other Asian and African religious.

“Symbolism is a very important means of communication,” Schneier told JTA. “Leaders of many religions took part, not just the ‘Children of Abraham.’ This conveyed a sense of the common destiny of mankind.”

“We need to energize and mobilize religious leaders to make clear that religion should not be fuel for violence,” he said.

The fallout from Sept. 11 also led to an expansion of religious programming at the World Economic Forum. Last year was the first time that some dozen religious leaders were invited for interreligious discussion alongside the economic talks.

This year there will be about 40 religious leaders, who will be integrated throughout the program and charged with forming a permanent religious council under the auspices of the World Economic Forum.

In establishing the council, the economic forum intends to strengthen inter-religious ties and offer business and political leaders the insight of faith.

The meeting scheduled for this week signals a rare meeting involving Israeli rabbis and clerics from Saudi Arabia and Iran, Rosen said.

Along with the archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Capetown, Prince Turki Al-Saud from the Saudi royal family and Ayatollah Mohajerani, director of the International Center for Islamic Civilization in Iran, are slated to join a dialogue with Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, one of Israel’s chief rabbis.

The meeting is “nothing to sneeze at,” Rosen said, but it’s “only a first step.” Its significance is that the Jewish religious leadership is “seen as part of the solution,” he said.

The question is how far such solutions extend. Schneier, Rosen and others among the dozen Jewish participants in the Assisi events are veterans of interfaith encounters that often can seem like preaching to the converted, and whose declarations often reach a limited audience of sympathizers.

In a formal statement, Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress reminded the Peace Day gathering in Assisi that “history has shown us that while the world’s religious leaders have always spoken of peace, and while their preachers have delivered countless homilies about the peace that is their ultimate goal, the reality has been that, in practice, religions have served to foment scores of horrendous and bloody wars.”

In this regard, Rosen said he hoped the Assisi meeting — covered by what the Italian media counted as more than 1,000 reporters from around the world — would be different.

“The fact that the pope convened the gathering gave it the exposure that it would not have had otherwise,” he said.

“I know of a number of Muslim leaders who do have goodwill, but are by no means ‘converted,’ ” he said. “The meeting was important to ‘move them on,’ but it was most important for the public at large.”

While the Peace Day’s impact remains to be seen, Schneier said that in today’s changed world, even longtime interfaith activists could derive strength from such high-profile encounters.

“Even the converted need reinforcement and strengthening, as there is such a sweep of extremism and fundamentalism that has primarily affected Islam, but also influences other faith communities,” he said.

“Those of us who believe in live and let live, we need to know that we are not standing alone,” he said. “These types of interfaith meetings have been given an added sense of urgency from Sept. 11.”

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