Historian, Founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio
In these moments the title of our congress seems no more than a wish. Peace is not the reality today. Neither does it seem to be the future. War has returned to Europe, between Russia and Ukraine. In two years the structure of the Middle East has failed, while persecuted refugees flee from Northern Iraq. Syria is prey to a devastating and inhuman war. These are sorrowful stories, which germinate also from the re-legitimization of war as a tool, as well as from the mixture of religion and violence. Sorrowful stories, which give rise to a general feeling of hopelessness in the face of war.
In general, there is a worsening of the very conditions war is conducted in, as provided for by the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners and of the wounded, as well as with regard to humanitarian laws. Wars are increasingly inhuman. We see it in the exhibition of acts of cruelty, which used to be covered up by those who committed them in the past, and now, in this global era, are used as a weapon: to slaughter and to exhibit the horror (women and men humiliated, driven out of their homes, naked, killed by gunshot or worse) is true terrorism. It is an act of worship of violence that terrorizes and conquers.
Peace does not seem to be the future. Neither does it seem to be in major cities, especially in the suburbs, where the widespread violence of mafias and crime rules, educating the youth to the worship of violence. It is almost a civil war. In many countries of the world – I think of a number of African countries – the State does not protect its citizens, who end up in the violent hands of criminal or pseudo-religious groups. I do not conjure these visions to make fear grow. The global world – Professor Bauman authoritatively explained – is a land of many fears: he also noted how our generation, though it is gifted with the best technology in history, is the one that experiences insecurity and fear the most.
Contemporary men and women feel isolated and at the mercy of powers that can attack them from afar. They live what the scholar of religions Mircea Eliade used to call “fear of history”. Fear of history also draws from the fundamental ignorance of the true actors of history, if any. And citizens, whether alone or associated with each other, feel incapable of making history and do not even try. They are powerless. Politics has lost all power. Fear is not only a feeling. Sometimes it turns into contempt for the other, for another religion, a different ethnic group… different. The culture of contempt is as ancient as human history, but in this time of globalization its revival is stunning. And fear generates violence: at times smuggled as preventive in the face of the other’s supposed aggressiveness.
We question ourselves on peace and future, on the current war and on this widespread violence that resembles widespread war. We do so in Belgium, in the hundredth anniversary of World War I, when this little neutral Country was overcome by a conflict born far away, showing that war spreads like a contagion in an environment saturated with tensions, turning into a global fact. And here I wish to grasp the opportunity to thank our Belgian friends for their hospitality, and express my thanks to those who offered their voluntary work for the realization of this meeting. One particular thought goes to the Bishop of Antwerp, H.E. Bonny, and to the Community of Sant’Egidio of Belgium.
A few weeks ago Pope Francis spoke of contemporary conflicts almost as a third world war, but in pieces or in chapters. Against this background, we ask ourselves: is peace our future?
Our path started long ago. Allow me to recall it, from the first great meeting among religions in Assisi, the city of St Francis, summoned in 1986 by John Paul II: there was still the cold war. We call it the path in the spirit of Assisi. Back then that great Pope said: “More perhaps than ever before in history, the intrinsic link between an authentic religious attitude and the great good of peace has become evident to all”. Religion and peace interpenetrate each other. It was necessary to remove all religious foundations from war and violence, denying religious war all excuses. We continued, since 1986, year after year, gathering together women and men of religion, humanists, to work on the delicate frontier – together spiritual and concrete – of war, religion and peace. We have done so convinced that war is never holy: only peace is holy.
We have watched over the frontier between war and religion because dangerous cocktails were being created, such as at the end of the 20th Century and at the beginning of the 21st, when an interpretation of conflicts as wars of religions and civilizations took root. It was a tremendous simplification facing the complexity of the global world, but it was handy for whoever was seeking an enemy and did not want to make the effort of understanding 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.
Along a path that set off in Assisi 1986, year after year, we have clarified that peace is much too serious to make it the affair of a few. Back then, John Paul II said: “Peace is a workshop, open to all and not just to specialists, savants and strategists”. Hence flows this movement of peace and dialogue, which has been through so many difficult scenarios. It has involved humanists and communities of believers. Unfailingly we were confronted with objections concerning the conflicts under way: what use is your dialogue? But what would the world be without dialogue? Visiting the Community of Sant’Egidio a few months ago, Pope Francis said: “The world suffocates without dialogue”. I would add: what does prayer achieve? But what would the world be without prayer?
Dialogue among religions, cultures, peoples, is the right solution in order to live together in regions and cities that are more and more complex and multifaceted, from an ethnic and religious perspective. Dialogue is a daily practice, a culture, which turns into a proposal. Wars leave the world worse than they found it. If we look back to the past two decades, we see that the wars of the new global world left a poisoned heritage of instability, destruction, mines, hatred, uprooted peoples. I say this not out of pacifism, but by a sound historical awareness of what has happened. Refusal of war does not originate from generic pacifism, but from the will to be peacemakers, emphasizing the path of dialogue.
Yet, in facing conflict, institutional bodies in charge of dialogue appear to be worn out, while the culture and practice of dialogue is devaluated to mere politically correctness, to schemes lacking passion, and is at times denigrated by the machismo of those who re-legitimize war and violence.
Religions hold a crucial responsibility. In our world, frightened by the economic crisis, an inspiration is necessary to bring back hope, and to guide humankind towards the awareness of a common destiny. Religions remind us that men and women actually undertake one same journey, and that 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, "all relatives, all different" – in the words of the anthropologist Germaine Tillion, who was imprisoned in a Nazi lager. This basic awareness is sometimes lost in the tangle of hatred, vested interests, perversion of culture, fanaticism. We need to revive the workshops of unity, especially by encouraging a simple, essential, uniting drive. Religions and cultures are capable of reviving this simple and basic awareness: “Be simple with intelligence!” – used to teach the great John Chrysostom.
My thought goes to two men of dialogue and religion, beloved friends, two Syrian Christian Bishops, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, together with Paolo Dall’Oglio, held captive for more than a year in Syria. We have no news of their fate. I wish to greet, among us, Patriarch Ephrem of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Church of Mar Gregorios, a defenseless and faithful people who, over generations, have preserved their peace without weapons.
At times, religions feel attracted by the worship of violence, capable of unleashing an inhuman and simplifying fanaticism. Religions should not just resist, they should return to their profound energy of peace. This happens when people meet each other and generously nurture the spiritual dimension of friendship. The strength of this path, in the spirit of Assisi, is to confirm that no war or violence can be waged in the name of God: a stand germinating from within the very religious traditions, alerting that violence in the name of God is blasphemy. All religious traditions tell us of a patient, merciful, slow to anger, compassionate God. We find this in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition. In today’s difficult times, men and women of religion need to find the audacity of reminding all that peace is the name of God. The act of being together, in this anniversary of World War I, before the conflict scenarios of our time, empowers us to strongly claim that peace is the future.
This means peace must be sought, as the future of our respective Countries, of conflict areas, of situations of tension. Each and every believer, every religious leader, beyond the borders of his or her community, is called to be a man and a woman of peace. This demands the development of a passion for peace, intended as a powerful resource, capable of spurring new ideas, of restoring places of encounter, of defying the fates of war.
John Paul II wrote us some years ago: “praying one beside the other does not erase differences, rather it shows the profound link that makes of us all humble men and women who are in search of that peace that only God can give”. This is what we will do during these days, especially on the last day. The Pope also added that “religions, today much more than in the past, must understand their historical responsibility in working for the unity of the human family”.
Dear friends, almost thirty years have passed since 1986, when our path began. Some of us unsurprisingly have grown old, but our conviction has not faded – rather it has strengthened – the belief that war is a great foolishness, and dialogue is the cure for conflict. More than ever, we are convinced that world peace is a great cause that can inspire policies, as well as personal choices. Peace is an ideal that is humiliated in too many regions of the world: it must rise again! Peace is the supreme ideal for tired societies lacking a cause.