Wars of religion fill history books. Even today, when religious institutions rarely feature as diplomacy's leading players, religious teachings are invoked time and time again to justify or explain violence and war. Yet wise leaders and observers, coming from an extraordinary range of traditions, argue passionately that the true essence, the core, of their faith is to make and build peace. The debates matter, deeply. However complex the causal linkages, religious actors and leaders are central figures in many world conflicts. Understanding what lies behind the contrasting perceptions and the complex realities is a vital (and sadly neglected) part of international relations, in all its dimensions.
One of the best places to explore the issues is the annual interreligious spectacle organized by the Rome based lay Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio. Religious leaders from around the world meet each fall, in different cities, in what they call a pilgrimage of faith and commitment to peace. Sant'Egidio has organized this unique gathering each year since 1986, when Pope John Paul II broke tradition by inviting leaders from the world's great faith traditions to pray for peace, together, side by side, in Assisi. The annual meeting has a special genius. Sant'Egidio pulls out every stop to organize an elaborate mixture of passionate and often provocative rhetoric, ceremony and symbolism, and intellectual fare, relying on its thousands of volunteers for everything from language interpretation to music. The Community's mantra of friendship and their global reach always makes this event both global and personal, spiritual and intellectual, timely in the moment and eternal.
The 2013 meeting in Rome (September 29-October 1) was marked by the fresh spirit of Pope Francis (who met the participants) and a glow of hope that the new Papacy has sparked. But just under the surface the atmosphere was thick with anxiety. Syria's terrible conflict loomed large. The drowning just off Italy's coast of desperate migrants took place nearby, and Italy's looming governance challenges were real and fresh. The US government crisis seemed alternately to dominate thinking, and to be so far away and so bizarre that words failed those who tried to explain what it was about.
So what can and should religious leaders do in the face of such intractable crises? Does it help to witness leaders coming from communities at war embrace and speak of dialogue? To see them joyfully join hands on tapers to light a candelabra for peace? Tears flowed at the final ceremony as adorable children carried scrolls with an appeal for peace from the religious leaders and to diplomats in the audience. More important, specific stories from many parts of the world, including some of the hottest spots on the planet, were both a sobering reminder of the work to be done and an inspiration of courage.
In the wondrous ceremony and symbolism displayed this month in Rome (slide show below), it is easy to grasp, viscerally and emotionally, the argument that religious teachings, leaders, and prayer have special powers to work for peace. The energy and verve that are so evident surely can blunt the cynicism that too often greets interfaith work.
But the messages and the challenges go far deeper. Sant'Egidio's work, as a movement and community, sets their dynamic peacemaking interventions, where they mediate between armed forces, in the context of a deep belief that lasting peace can come only if there is justice and opportunity for all people. That is why a session about how to address the Syria crisis goes alongside discussions about migration and healthcare for the poor. I chaired a discussion about violence against women (a first in Sant'Egidio history, organized, someone told me, at the suggestion of the Pope). The topics ranged from rape in war to trafficking to domestic violence and treatment of domestic servants.
The Sant'Egidio meeting truly has the character of a pilgrimage, moving each year from place to place, with many of the same leaders, who pursue their efforts with determination and vision. Modern technology offers the hope that the infectious spirit cam carry farther. This year parallel meetings were held in Houston and Abidjan. The date and place for the 2014 Prayer for Peace is set: September, in Antwerp. And in between, those who are infected with the courage to hope (the theme for 2013) will continue their efforts to show, with what they do and achieve, that the true spirit of their faith is indeed, as they say so movingly in their ceremonies and prayers, peace and justice.