Signs of the Times

In Assisi, Religious Leaders Call Violence, Religions Incompatible

Violence and terrorism are incompatible with the faith and belief of all the world’s religions, more than 200 spiritual leaders said during a meeting with Pope John Paul II in Assisi on Jan. 24. Since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, the pope said, religious leaders have wanted to do their part to fend off "the dark clouds of terrorism, hatred [and] armed conflict."

The Assisi gathering brought together Christians from 16 churches and communities, 30 Muslim clerics from 18 nations, 10 rabbis and representatives from Buddhism, Tenrikyo, Shintoism, Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism and traditional African religions. The leaders traveled with the pope by train to Assisi, reflected on peace together, prayed for peace separately using their own rites, then gathered together again to make a common commitment to promoting peace and teaching their faithful that true religion cannot be used to promote violence or terrorism.


"Violence never again," the pope said at the end of the afternoon meeting. "War never again. Terrorism never again," he said. "In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life, love," the 81-year-old pope said before his guests set lighted glass and terracotta oil lamps on a large table as a sign of hope.

During the afternoon service, 10 religious leaders, reading in 10 different languages, recited 10 commitments they all promised to fulfill to help bring peace to the world. The Rev. Konrad Raiser, secretary general of the World Council of Churches, read the first pledge in German: "We commit ourselves to proclaiming our firm commitment that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion and, as we condemn every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or religion, we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to eliminate the root causes of terrorism."

The leaders also promised to educate their faithful to respect others, to foster dialogue, to defend each person’s right to live a decent life, to value differences, to be voices for the poor and defenseless and to promote friendship among peoples.

Orthodox Bishop Vasilios of Trimithus on the divided island of Crete read another pledge: "We commit ourselves to forgiving one another for past and present errors and prejudices...and to learn from the past that peace without justice is no true peace."

Pope John Paul and the other leaders who spoke at the morning session in Assisi repeatedly underlined the need for justice and respect for human rights in building peace. "It cannot be forgotten that situations of oppression and exclusion are often at the source of violence and terrorism," he said.

But religious leaders also know that forgiveness is part of peacemaking because it "heals the wounds of the heart and fully restores damaged human relations," the pope said. Pope John Paul also said it was essential that the religious leaders clearly proclaim their common conviction that "whoever uses religion to foment violence contradicts religion’s deepest and truest inspiration."

Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox and one of three patriarchs participating in the meeting, told the gathering: "Today, once more, following horrendous holocausts and the slaughter of so many innocent victims, it is our duty to acknowledge the spiritual conditions for peace on earth, and not merely economic or other factors. These conditions include righteousness and respect for the sacredness of the human person, for one’s neighbor and for his freedom and dignity."

Rabbi Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, followed little of his prepared text, instead telling Pope John Paul, "Only you can make this happen," and telling the other leaders that only by fostering commitments to peace among their faithful can religions turn their potential for peacemaking into a concrete reality. "You should tell your people and we should tell ours, all of us-all of us-to question whether land or places are more important than people’s lives and, until we learn to do that, there will be no peace," the rabbi said. History, he said, has shown that despite beautiful religious exhortations to be a force of peace, "the reality has been that, in practice, religions have served to foment scores of horrendous and bloody wars."

Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi of al-Azhar University in Egypt and spiritual leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims sent a message to the gathering thanking the pope for his initiative and explaining Islam’s fidelity to God, its precept of respect for "all monotheistic religions revealed by God" and its emphasis on moral values. "All the monotheistic religions preach that the human being should support law and justice, restoring the legitimate proprietors to their rights," he said, making his reference to tensions in the Holy Land obvious by thanking the Vatican for its "honorable support of the Palestinian people."

After sharing the "testimonies for peace" in Assisi, Pope John Paul and Patriarch Bartholomew led the Christians from 17 Orthodox churches and 14 Anglican and Protestant communities into the lower basilica for an ecumenical prayer service. Franciscan friars escorted members of the 11 other religions into their huge convent complex, where in separate places around the cloistered courtyard, each faith held its own prayer service.

Philippine Bishops Welcome U.S. Support in Pursuit of Abu Sayyaf

Philippine bishops welcomed the U.S. government’s support in pursuing the extremist Abu Sayyaf group, saying this meets the wishes of the people in the southern Philippines. "We are supporting the will of the people in this regard," Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, told a press conference in Manila on Jan. 28. "If [the people] wish that some help be given by a friendly force upon the invitation of the government and with the constitutional and legal issues resolved, we don’t think we should go against our own suffering people," the archbishop said. However, Archbishop Quevedo said U.S. forces should serve only in the background as advisers and not engage in direct combat.

Pope: Catholic Lawyers Should Decline Divorce Cases

Pope John Paul II said Catholic civil lawyers must not take divorce cases if the client’s intent is to break the marriage bond. Speaking on Jan. 28 to the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal that handles annulment appeals, the pope said the church must oppose divorce in society by promoting a "mentality, social custom and civil legislation in favor of indissolubility."

Pope John Paul said Catholic judges might find it impossible not to take divorce cases, but they "must find effective means to promote matrimonial unions, above all through a wisely conducted work of reconciliation." But he said Catholic lawyers who are free to choose their cases "must always decline the use of their profession for an end that is counter to justice, like divorce."

"They can only collaborate in such an activity when it, in the client’s intent, is not aimed at the breaking of the marriage, but to other legitimate effects," he said. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, separated couples are permitted to obtain a civil divorce if it is "the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance."

Pope John Paul called divorce a "plague" with devastating consequences for society and said the church must unwaveringly defend marriage’s permanencewhich he said was ordained by Godand oppose alternative kinds of unions, like gay "marriages."

"It could almost seem that divorce is so rooted in certain social environments that it is almost not worth continuing to combat it," Pope John Paul said. "But it is worth it!" he said. The pope warned church marriage courts to shun a "divorce mentality" in deciding annulment cases.

Vatican Urges International Observers in Holy Land

A top Vatican official recommended that international observers be sent to the Holy Land, saying the world cannot stand idly by while the Israeli and Palestinian death toll mounts. "The Holy See has been thinking about this idea for more than a year, because one cannot look on passively at the daily deaths of Israelis and Palestinians," Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, told Vatican Radio on Jan. 26. He said the Vatican was saddened at the reports of victims that come in every day. Church officials are convinced that both sides need help "getting back on the road of reason and above all the road of negotiation," he said.

Religious Leaders Pledge to Help End Middle-East Violence

Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders met in Alexandria, Egypt, and pledged to work together to end violence and promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah and Melkite Archbishop Pierre Mouallem of Akko were among those who signed the Alexandria declaration during the 36-hour, closed-door meeting. They called for an end to "incitement, hatred and misrepresentation of the other." The declaration, released on Jan. 21, said, "According to our faith traditions, killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of his Holy Name and defames religion in the world."

Bishops from North America and Europe also met in Jerusalem from Jan. 21 to Jan. 24 with the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land. In their concluding "Message to the Christians of the Holy Land," the bishops took note of the violence affecting everyone in the Holy Land. They wrote: "The present cycle of violence is a tragedy for everyone. It is profoundly wrong to keep a people under occupation; it is abhorrent to hold millions of men, women and children confined in one enormous jail. It is likewise morally reprehensible to take vengeance or undertake resistance with random attacks on innocent people."

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