Historian, Founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio
Mr. President of the Republic of Cyprus
Your Highness, Presidents,
Your Holiness, Beatitudes, Eminences,
of the Christian Churches, ecclesial communities and great world Religions,
Today, Cyprus is made into a crossroads, for men and women of different religions and cultures, who meet, speak, are in dialogue with each other, who pray one beside the other, one for the other.
I greet all the participants, and I would like to thank the President of the Republic, Dimitris Christofias, in particular, for his welcoming words and the warm hospitality of the Government of Cyprus. I wish it success for its initiatives fostering peace and dialogue.
To all the religious leaders who are present I offer my gratitude, and I wish to underline the decisive role of His Beatitude Chrysostomos, Archbishop of New Justiniana and All Cyprus, in accomplishing this event. He extended the invitation to come to this island. And the Church of Cyprus welcomed us with generous hospitality. The Archbishop is true to the splendid tradition of hospitality of the people of Cyprus.
I would like to thank all those who worked for the realisation of this event. I thank the embassy of Cyprus to the Holy See for its effectiveness, Mr Charilaou, and many others, whom I cannot mention for the sake of brevity. I greet the almost a thousand people who have come from Italy and Europe, to offer their voluntary contribution to the success of these days.
The people of Cyprus know the meaning of peace, because they have been through the sufferance of war and flight from their homes. Cyprus stands on a history of coexistence between two ethnic groups and religious communities. But for several decades now it has been the last patch of occupied Europe. Cyprus has experienced the pain of division, the sorrows of hatred and absence of dialogue. As a result it welcomes our meeting with joy. It is full of joy as it sees the dove of peace settle on this island, and the rainbow of peace rising from its shores. Our ambition is to turn this wounded island into a place of encounter and dialogue within the Mediterranean Sea.
The lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea are worlds where people of different religions and ethnic groups live together. Coexistence is hard. I think of nearby Lebanon. In our hearts we bear the impossible situation of the Holy Land, that is so close. Living together is the challenge, for the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean, as they witness the increase of emigration. Living together is the challenge, for entire Middle East and for Iraq. It is indeed a challenge for many other parts of the world. To live together people need to understand that the presence of the other, however different he or she may be, is a gift. Civilisation is indeed civilisation if it is not of one colour, if it is like a rainbow, the fruit of a rich mixture of stories and identities. A world where the other, the one who is different, is eliminated, is a land of barbarity. True civilisation is the civilisation of coexistence.
But why do we speak of faiths and civilisations of coexistence today, while the world is in the clutches of a financial downfall whose depth is unknown?
We are at a difficult point in history. Many certainties are shaken. A very high price of the crisis will be paid for by the poorest of the world, while industrialised countries focus on protecting their own taxpayers. A point that is painfully underscored by a recent appeal by my friend Michel Camdessus, together with Kofi Annan and Robert Rubin. They observe, however, that the crisis may turn into an impulse for radical change. And radical change is necessary. But for change to come, we need a surplus of spirit and humanity. A surplus of spirit, and more sense of humanity, to show that a world still marred by so much widespread misery and conflict, is intolerable.
We have come to Cyprus, wounded and beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea, that has shown the peaceful and effective power of the spirit.
Our story comes from afar. It started back in 1986, when an extraordinary event took place in the historical Italian city of Assisi, the hometown of Saint Francis. The earnest invitation of a Pope, John Paul II, gathered together religious leaders from all over the world. It was not a session of negotiations, only a meeting. Plain words, the recognition of the other as a brother, or a sister, prayer, side by side. Many asked themselves, in the years of the cold war and winning secularisation, if religions weren’t something archaic, fated to disappear with the rising of modernity. What could religions achieve against the political and military system of the cold war?
The event of Assisi brought to light a spirit: the spirit of Assisi, which still blows strongly. Never had something so simple and so momentous happened. John Paul II, with prophetic insight, realised that religions would have played a crucial role. In the evening of 27th October 1986, on the hilltop of Assisi, in biting cold weather, but facing a bright clear sky, he said:
“Together we have filled our eyes with visions of peace: they release energies for a new language of peace, for new gestures of peace, gestures which will shatter the fatal chains of divisions inherited from history or spawned by modern ideologies…”.
The vision of the leaders of the great world religions, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, together, in a spiritual atmosphere of respect was a vision of peace. It was a cold day, but the sky of the future was bright and clear. Was it just the utopia of a mystical pope? A comforting dream against the power of the empires of the cold war?
We, of the Community of Sant’Egidio, did not believe so. We were in Assisi on that 27th October 1986, and we felt the shudder of history and the fascination of a prophecy. At the end of his speech John Paul II said: “Peace is a workshop, open to all and not just to specialists, savants and strategists”. And we answered: that workshop is our workshop!
Work is needed in the workshop of peace: there are so many open wars. Not only specialists. We were mostly young people at the time, and we felt that peace was our workshop. We felt that the spirit of Assisi had to carry on blowing. And we steadfastly and passionately continued to meet, year after year. Someone said it was useless: that meeting every year was a ritual repetition; religions would not have changed the world. But Assisi was a prophecy: different people together under the sign of peace, focusing on the reality of humankind.
The Community of Sant’Egidio is a small people of believers, children of the Catholic Church, who live in many parts of the world, in Europe, Africa, Asia, America: many are young, poor, common people, all are friends of the poor and the needy. Yes, the first friends of Sant’Egidio are not the powerful, but the poor, the poor of the cities of Europe, AIDS patients in Africa, prisoners, beggars… The poor know that war is the mother of all poverty, they are aware that conflict and violence produce misery, and they know that its price is met by them, first of all.
Having grown up at the school of the Gospel, we have a horror of war and we feel that peace is our vocation. Peace is not only the end of war: it is solidarity with many, too many, millions of poor people around the world. If we want peace, we need to go towards the poor! There shall be no peace while so many millions of women, children and men are subject to the violence of poverty! This is not theory, it is the living awareness of whoever has seen the plight of the poor. That much sorrow is not bearable.
In 1986 we shouldered the spirit of Assisi; since then we have taken it to the corners of the world. Like a beast of burden we have taken it to many different places on the planet. Today we are no longer easily distinguishable from this spirit.
The spirit of Assisi is a manifestation of the power of the Spirit. At Assisi we witnessed the embrace between people of different religions who for ages had misunderstood or opposed each other, or even worse, fought each other. We acknowledged the profound bond that exists between a truly religious spirit and the quest for the vital good of peace. We recognised that the world of the spirit carries a strength, humble and weak, against the arrogance of political and economic power. It is the strength of prayer, love, dialogue, and encounter. Indeed, the realm of the spirit carries a peaceful and peacemaking strength the can change people and history. And after Assisi in 1986, a number of non-violent signs and gestures of peace were capable of overcoming the divisions produced by modern ideologies. It was the end of the Soviet era and its pretence to build a brand-new future by trampling on human freedom. We have seen the power of peace, and the values of the spirit at work, in several political transitions in the Nineties, such as the - apparently impossible - change in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. The spirit of Assisi proved effective also through the endeavours of the Community of Sant’Egidio. In 1992, Sant’Egidio sealed the Peace Agreement between the government and the guerrilla in Mozambique, ending a war with a toll of more than one million dead. The power of the spirit can extinguish war.
Today religions play a major role in the public arena, much more than twenty years ago. André Malraux used to say that the Twenty-First century would be the century of religions, or would not be at all. Unfortunately, religions are also used to fuel wars. It is the story of religious fundamentalism, hatred, and violence waged in the name of God. Indeed, religions can be like water that extinguishes the fire of hatred, or like fuel that inflames it. For this reason, they have to cultivate a language of peace. That is why, most of all, religions must nourish the search for God, for it leads to discover the spirit of peace that lies at the heart of every religion.
Last year we were in Naples, in a Peace Meeting characterised by the enthusiasm of the people (and allow me to thank once again Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Archbishop of Naples). Benedict XVI, in his meeting with the religious leaders, said the following words, referring to the spirit of Assisi: “it opposes any form of violence and any abuse of religion as a pretext for violence. Facing a world lacerated by conflicts, where violence is sometimes justified in the name of God, it is important to reaffirm that never religions can be a vehicle of hatred; never can evil and violence be justified by invoking the name of God. On the contrary, religions can and must offer precious resources to build a peaceful humanity, for they speak of peace to the heart of man”.
The spirit of Assisi counters violence in the name of God. The spirit blew strongly in Naples, and blows here with great energy. Our words, our meetings, will be like blowing with all the breath our lungs can bear, for this spirit to grow, encompassing hearts and minds, and become the wind of a new era for women and men, and for the whole world, it will become a culture and a climate of peace.
Many people say that a civilization of peace is impossible, that we need to bow our heads to dire reality. They claim this lies in the very nature of humankind and peoples. They are the ones who believe that war alone may eventually bring about peace - even though it almost always leaves behind a poisoned legacy. They maintain that peace can come only through market development, in which they trust as the sole true providence. But in the last month we have seen the failure of this trust in the markets. We have to be sensible, and draw lessons from our recent history. The providence of economics will not produce peace. Neither will peace come from one country, however powerful it may be. Nor will it be one player. The players and actors of history today are many, and they are all strong. We are not dreamers, we are quite realistic. Reality is complex, and it bears a number of determinants.
Those who have trodden on the paths of the spirit are well aware that reality cannot be played down to simple economics, or to the brutal law of power. A new world is possible, not as the fruit of magic, but rather as a patient building process of a civilization of coexistence, through daily dialogue, encounter, respect for the other’s freedom and diversity, through solidarity towards the poor, the little ones, towards life in all its manifestations and seasons. To build a new world, we need a surplus of humanity and of spirit. Humanity and spirit can build a genuine human community, a community of peoples.
It will not be a specialist, nor a powerful person, nor one individual to bring about a new world. A new world will be built by peoples, with the help of God, by respecting everyone. What we need for our times is a surplus of spirit, spirit of peace, and spirit of compassion. It may be the dawn of a better world or a time of chaos.
Religions bring hope to millions of men and women, by giving them the chance of personal improvement, of a better world, and eternal life. Religions are a heritage of hope. We may be excessively resigned to the reality of war, widespread armed conflict, or overwhelming poverty. We may be excessively resigned to a mentality of permanent conflict between nations, cultures, religions. This may also be the case of men and women, believers, who have the task of bringing hope.
That is why we are here: to dialogue, to discuss, to build long-lasting relationships of friendship capable of enduring hatred, which is often sown in our hearts and minds.
Distinguished friends, we need to hope for a true civilization of peace, where war is rejected, where different cultures and religions live together, where solidarity towards the poor is made real. Our hope is that the realm of the spirit may be the source of a genuine humanism, capable of compassion.
We hold different convictions, traditions, religious faiths. This does not bring us to hatred or despise, nor to erase our differences. It would be unfair! But peace where difference is at home is the true sign our times need: sign of humanity, sign of freedom, sign of welfare. That is why we are so grateful to you all: from this island of Cyprus, so beautiful amidst a difficult world, you will convey a sign of peace, the sign of the dove and the rainbow.