Peace is the Future?! Religion and Conflict in Antwerp

09/10/2014 05:14 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Peace is the future: the title given to the great annual interreligious meeting organized this week in Antwerp by the lay Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio, seemed supremely ironic: a question mark seemed more appropriate than an exclamation point. Religion seems tightly associated with violence these days, both conflicts that erupt like a sudden storm from a cloudless sky, and the deliberate, brutal, and religiously explained violence that we see in the leaders of the Islamic State (IS). The memories of the outbreak of World War I are vivid in Belgium and the Ukrainian crisis is live and close by. Yet the climactic ceremony in Antwerp's central square on September 9 was full of exuberant hope. The ancient ideal of true peace is not a utopia, many cried out, but something that we can and must achieve.

It was fascinating to witness the varying moods of despair and elated hope in Antwerp. There are many interfaith gatherings, at international, national, and local levels, and indeed we speak of an interfaith movement, with a myriad of large and small institutions. These efforts have passionate advocates and (usually) silent denigrators who see little impact from meetings and fine words. But this annual event has something that makes it truly distinctive. Why, then, do wise and even cynical people take from the Sant'Egidio meetings such hope and determination?

Each year in what is termed a "pilgrimage of prayer" the Community of Sant'Egidio works with a city and, because it does so in the context of the Catholic Church, the Catholic diocese there. It's always a three-day event and the format is pretty much the same. The host last year was Rome, the year before Sarajevo, and next year (announced with a flourish) Tirana. The effort was inspired by the 1986 interreligious meeting in Assisi called by Pope John Paul II, thus giving the event a near 30-year history.

The format combines inspirational words, graphic symbolism, and a focus on friendship and community.

For inspiration, Sant'Egidio's founder, a remarkable historian, Andrea Riccardi, always brings new ideas, and a series of speeches from some of the world's great religious and humanist leaders offer an enormous menu of ideas and challenges.

For symbolism, different religious groups worship separately, but come together, like tributaries of a river to meet on a platform for a final ceremony. Diversity and living history are on display, though sadly the gathering demonstrates vividly the stunning absence of women in most religious hierarchies. A scroll with a peace declaration and an olive branch is handed by the religious leaders to a visibly diverse group of children to pass on. The final ceremony takes place at sundown, outdoors in a central square, and culminates in religious leaders lighting a candelabra and shouting calls for peace above stirring music

And for friendship and community, Sant'Egidio is an inspiration in itself as thousands of members converge and work together to produce an impeccable organization but also the extraordinary gift of individual care for each invited guest. Want to meet the woman representing Central African Republic? The Patriarch from Cambodia? The Moro leader from the Philippines? The person responsible for negotiations in Nigeria? My "angel", Massimo Magnano, a doctor from Rome, makes sure I find the person in the crowd and have a chance for thoughtful conversation.

Then, of course, the meeting comes to an end. The euphoria barely lingers as participants drag their suitcases heading for reality. But ideas are planted, friendships formed. And this event, more than any other interreligious event I know, captures media attention so the messages resonate.

There was a new urgency this year to recognize and explore the ironies and complexities that link conflict and religion. It is commonplace to hear that a conflict with religious manifestations really has nothing to do with religion; "it's all about politics". Though I heard that often in Antwerp, there was a real effort to dig deeper: as Andrea Riccardi said, "to work on the delicate frontier that is both spiritual and concrete - of war, religion and peace." Riccardi focused, for example, on what has given the idea of an inevitable clash of civilizations such credence. It is, he says, a dangerous cocktail, a tremendous simplification of the complexity of the global world. "But it was handy for whoever was seeking an enemy and did not want to make the effort to understand the other, as well as for those, it must to be said, who wanted to wage war or stand up as enemies to others or to the world. Wars of religion? Frightened men and women are reassured in finding an enemy to fight. Power-thirsty men and women seek a blessing and legitimization in religion."

In both the large plenary sessions and in some 30 panels there was honest reflection about violence and conflict, including the perceived failure of Muslim leaders to condemn categorically enough IS and other extremist and violent groups. Many Muslims made powerful statements but also reported cases where such statements lead to death. They despise the values that IS and other groups represent but addressing them is complicated, they argued.

Dialogue is always presented as the solution. The term can seem feeble and incredible as a solution to horrors described vividly by those who have seen them. Indeed, the most passionate witness in Antwerp, Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi leader who came in a wheelchair because her leg was broken in a helicopter rescue from the Sinjar mountains, spoke far more of protection and redress than talk and negotiations, even urging the international community to give weapons to "good people". But, it was repeated again and again, war is never the answer. What's needed are better understanding (starting with education), a willingness to see all people as human beings, and a determination to listen and engage. That means patient negotiations, with no one excluded. Michel Camdessus, former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, commented that dialogue needs informality, equality, and cooperation, which equates, in his mind, to the great French principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Dialogue in a religious context means a willingness to be transformed, something easier said than done. And the responsibility and potential religious leaders to act was front and center.

As Riccardi observed: "Religions remind us that men and women undertake a single, common journey, and they share a common fate. It is a basic consciousness, as simple as bread and as wanted as water: people share a common destiny in diversity".