An Organizer of "Assisi I" Looks Ahead to "Assisi II"

"There Are Other Walls of Division" in World, Says Cardinal Etchegaray

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ROME, NOV. 22, 2001 (ZENIT.org-Avvenire).- As president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray was one of the organizers of the first meeting of world religious leaders, held in Assisi 15 years ago, to pray for peace.



"It was an extraordinary step toward non-Christian religions," the cardinal said, following John Paul II´s announcement this week that a similar event will be held in Assisi on Jan. 24.

--Q: What impression did that event make on you?

--Cardinal Etchegaray: Having been a privileged witness of its development in John Paul II´s thought, I was not surprised.

Instead, I was amazed by his announcement in St. Paul Outside the Walls on Jan. 25, 1986. This was the announcement of a "premiere" in the history of humanity and, as such, without any points of reference: to bring together all the world´s religions to take part in a common service for universal peace.

Determined to avoid any form, even superficial, of syncretism, the Pope followed step by step the 10 months of preparation that led to the Oct. 27 meeting.

--Q: What fruits resulted from that meeting?

--Cardinal Etchegaray: Assisi enabled the Church to take an extraordinary step toward non-Christian religions, in keeping with the dynamic of the Council. Thereafter, the interreligious dialogue was multiplied, deepened and less unwonted, as one of the greatest challenges of our time.

Assisi stimulated the Church´s own vocation: to profess the unity of the mystery of salvation of all men in Jesus, the Savior. Thanks to what the Pope has described as "the spirit of Assisi," religious leaders have raised their voice with greater security to resist the political manipulations of religion in times of conflict.

--Q: How did you feel in Assisi, being close to all the religions on earth?

--Cardinal Etchegaray: I dare say that that day I felt the beating heart of an anguished humanity under nuclear threat, which confidently rediscovered the unity of its origins. All of a sudden, when the rainbow appeared in the stormy skies of Assisi, everyone read in it an urgent appeal to the way of fraternity.

No one could doubt that prayer had inspired this visible sign of the connivance of God and Noah´s descendants. In front of the Basilica of St. Francis where, dying of cold, all crowded next to one another, when some Jewish youths went up to the platform to offer olive branches to the Muslims, a tear ran down my face. ? Peace, more than war, should make us weep -- but tears of joy and humble reconciliation.

--Q: In two months´ time, religions will meet again. What do you think will be the response to the Pope´s invitation following the Sept. 11 events?

--Cardinal Etchegaray: I don´t know what will happen in Assisi next Jan. 24. The situation has changed a lot in the past 15 years. The Berlin Wall has fallen, but there are other walls of division, and now they are more visible, following the fall of the Twin Towers.

The problem of terrorism is very serious, very complex, but we cannot allow it to pressure us, nor must we reduce it to the war with Afghanistan.

How many forgotten wars exist in addition to those that occurred under the gaze of international attention! In 1993 a second "Assisi" took place with the Pope for peace in the Balkans. Let´s hope that Assisi will rediscover the planetary vision of a peace that is even more urgent today.

--Q: Why has the Pope requested that Christians prepare for this meeting with a day of fasting and prayer?

--Cardinal Etchegaray: Prayer and fasting together, but also charity and the distribution of wealth! These three signs are part of an inseparable trinomial that the Muslims themselves value during this month of Ramadan.

St. Peter Chrysologous, a fifth-century bishop of Ravenna, said that these three gestures "give life to one another: if one of the three is missing, nothing can be done."

I think that the days of Dec. 14 and Jan. 24 will enable us to discover better the importance of fasting, of this practice followed by Christ´s himself, which offers us the tradition of the most ancient religions.

The Christian meaning of fasting has nothing to do with sanctimoniousness: Above all, the believer wishes to manifest, body and soul, his openness to God, from whom he expects everything, including the gift of peace.