On September 20, Pope Francis met over 400 religious leaders in Assisi, Italy for the thirtieth anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace. The interreligious peace conference, which Pope Saint John Paul II founded in 1986, featured religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist faith traditions.
Organized by the Christian lay group Community Sant’Egidio, the conference began two days earlier with a celebration of the Eucharist and opening assembly where Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a call to develop a “culture of dialogue.”
“Peace is something that we long for and yearn with much passion and with great pain,” he said. “It can only be achieved through unconditional dialogue and care for all of God’s creation.”
The conference featured different panels that explored past problems of peace, including one discussion called Christians and Jews in Dialogue: Milestones. The panelist Rabbi David Rosen spoke about the fraught history of Christianity and Judaism and what he called a “teaching of contempt” that “viewed the Jews as rejected and cursed by God…[and] contributed significantly to the dehumanisation of the Jew that facilitated the enormity of the tragedy of the Shoah.” Rosen also pointed out the “revolution” in Christian-Jewish relations during the last fifty years, saying “there is nothing comparable to the transformation.”
Quoting Pope Saint John Paul II, Rosen said that the Catholic Church now sees Judaism as “the ‘dearly beloved elder brother of the Church of the Eternal Covenant’ with whom the Church has a unique ‘intrinsic’ relationship.’”
During his time at the peace conference, Pope Francis met with many of the representatives and leaders from different religions. He also ate dinner with twelve refugees, who shared their stories with the Pope and other religious leaders.
One such refugee spoke before the entire conference during the closing ceremony. “I come from Aleppo, the martyr city of Syria. Aleppo, to say this name breaks my heart,” said Tamar Mikalli, an Armenian woman from Syria. She said that in Aleppo, she had both Christian and Muslim friends. “Now distinctions are made between Christians and Muslims, but before the war there was no difference.”
After their home was bombed, her family was forced to leave the city. “It is the second exodus our families endure in one hundred years,” she said, referring to the Armenian genocide and the subsequent dispersion of her people. Mikalli ended her speech with an appeal to the conference: “To all of you men and women of religion, and to you Your Holiness, on behalf of the Syrian people, we ask for a prayer, for Peace and love to return to Syria and all over the world.”