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Pope Hosts Ecumenical Service in Assisi

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the John Paul II's historic meeting for peace in the Italian town of Assisi, and was remembered by Pope Benedict XVI with a special pilgrimage to the site along with representatives of other religions and non-believers.

Following a greeting from Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a video was screened in commemoration of the 1986 meeting.

Then, one after the other, the representatives of the various religions rose to speak, including His Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Rabbi David Rosen, representative of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel; Wande Abimbola, spokesperson for the Yoruba faith; Acharya Shri Shrivatsa Goswami, representative for Hinduism; Ja-Seung, president of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism; Kyai Haji Hasyom Muzadi, secretary general of the International Conference of Islamic Schools, and Julia Kristeva, representing non-believers.

The Holy Father then rose to address the congregation.

"Twenty-five years have passed since Blessed Pope John Paul II first invited representatives of the world's religions to Assisi to pray for peace. What has happened in the meantime? What is the state of play with regard to peace today?"

In 1986, the greatest threat to world peace came from communism, of which the Berlin Wall was a "conspicuous symbol," he said.  Three years after the Assisi meeting, the wall came down without bloodshed.

"But what happened next? Unfortunately, we cannot say that freedom and peace have characterized the situation ever since. ... Violence as such is potentially ever present and it is a characteristic feature of our world. Freedom is a great good. But the world of freedom has proved to be largely directionless, and not a few have misinterpreted freedom as somehow including freedom for violence. Discord has taken on new and frightening guises, and the struggle for freedom must engage us all in a new way."

He went on to describe the two types of violence most prevalent today.

"First there is terrorism, for which in place of a great war there are targeted attacks intended to strike the opponent destructively at key points, with no regard for the lives of innocent human beings, who are cruelly killed or wounded in the process. In the eyes of the perpetrators, the overriding goal of damage to the enemy justifies any form of cruelty. Everything that had been commonly recognized and sanctioned in international law as the limit of violence is overruled. We know that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty. ... In this case, religion does not serve peace, but is used as justification for violence."

He went on to acknowledge that this violence has also been perpetrated in the name of Christianity, which he called "an abuse of the Christian faith" and "one that evidently contradicts its true nature."

The God in whom Christians believe is the Creator and Father of all, and from Him all people are brothers and sisters and form one single family, he explained. "For us the Cross of Christ is the sign of the God Who put 'suffering-with' (compassion) and 'loving-with' in place of force. ... It is the task of all who bear responsibility for the Christian faith to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God's peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans."

He then described the second type of violence most prevalent in the world today which is found in the denial of God.

"The enemies of religion - as we said earlier - see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear. But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognises any criterion or any judge above himself, now having only himself to take as a criterion. The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God's absence."

He declined to speak further about state-imposed atheism and instead focused on the decline of man "which is accompanied by a change in the spiritual climate that occurs imperceptibly and hence is all the more dangerous."

This he described as "the worship of mammon, possessions and power" which is proving to be a kind of counter-religion, in which it is no longer man who counts but only personal advantage.

"The desire for happiness degenerates, for example, into an unbridled, inhuman craving, such as appears in the different forms of drug dependency. ... Force comes to be taken for granted and in parts of the world it threatens to destroy our young people. Because force is taken for granted, peace is destroyed and man destroys himself in this peace vacuum."

He went on to speak about another phenomenon afoot in the world today which is the growth of agnosticism, and described agnostics as people who are without faith but are searching for the truth and for God.

"Such people do not simply assert: 'There is no God'. They suffer from His absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards Him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are 'pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace'. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty. ... But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if He belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others."

He went on to say that the responsibility for the failure of agnostics to find God belongs in part to believers who have a limited or false image of God.

"So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible."

This is why he invited delegates from among the ranks of agnostics to attend the meeting because he sees them as companions on the same journey toward truth.

He concluded: "Finally I would like to assure you that the Catholic Church will not let up in her fight against violence, in her commitment for peace in the world. We are animated by the common desire to be 'pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace'".

Participants visited the convent of Porziuncola, shared a light lunch, and were given a period of silence for individual prayer and reflection before attending concluding ceremonies in the Basilica.

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