BY LUKE COPPEN
THE POPE has declared last week's meeting of religious leaders at Assisi a "milestone" on the way towards the civilisation of love.
Speaking on Sunday, three days after the historic gathering, John Paul II said that together with the heads of the world's great religions he had sent out the message that violence could not solve humanity's deepest problems.
"Thus," the Pope said, "we have achieved a milestone on the way to building a civilisation of peace and love."
Some 200 faith leaders, including the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, joined John Paul II last Thursday in Assisi to celebrate a day of prayer for world peace. The Pope called the meeting following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, to address rising tensions between Muslims and Christians.
Standing beneath a huge tarpaulin in Lower St Francis Square, the Pontiff challenged leaders to ward off the "dark clouds" of terrorism, hatred and armed conflict. "We have come to Assisi on a pilgrimage of peace," he said. "We are here, as representatives of different religions, to examine ourselves before God concerning our commitment to peace, to ask him for this gift, to bear witness to our shared longing for a world of greater justice and solidarity.
"We wish to do our part in fending off the dark clouds of terrorism, hatred, armed conflict, which in these last few months have grown particularly ominous on humanity's horizon.
"For this reason we wish to listen to one other: we believe that this itself is already a sign of peace.
"In listening to one another there is already a reply to the disturbing questions that worry us. This already serves to scatter the shadows of suspicion and misunderstanding. The shadows will not be dissipated with weapons; darkness is dispelled by send ing out bright beams of light."
He continued: "It is essential, therefore, that religious people and communities should in the clearest and most radical way repudiate violence, all violence, starting with the violence that seeks to clothe itself in religion, appealing even to the most holy name of God in order to offend man.
"To offend against man is, most certainly, to offend against God. There is no religious goal which can possibly justify the use of violence by man against man."
During the brief afternoon service, 10 religious leaders, reading in 10 different languages, promised to help bring peace to the world. Patriarch Bartholomew, the first to speak, said: "Today, once more, following horrendous holocausts and the slaughter of so many innocent victims, it is our duty to acknowledge the spiritual conditions for peace on earth, and not merely economic or other factors.
"We must repent and turn back to God in full awareness of his holy will and in obedience to it. Only then will God hear our prayers and grant us and all mankind true peace on earth."
Chief Amadou Gasseto. high priest of followers of Avelekete Voodoo in Benin, echoed the patriarch's point about personal behaviour and its decisive role in creating peace or conflict.
"We must begin by achieving mastery over ourselves so as not to speak words which lead to feelings of opposition, exclusion or violence," he said.
Rabbi Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, followed little of his prepared text, instead telling Pope John Paul: "Only you can make this happen," and telling the other leaders that only by fostering commitments to peace among their faithful can religions turn their potential for peacemaking into a concrete reality.
"You should tell your people and we should tell ours, to question whether land or places are more important than people's lives and, until we learn to do that, there will be no peace," the rabbi said.
At the end of the speeches, the Pope lit a symbolic lamp of peace, with the cry: "Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In God's name, may all religions bring upon earth justice and peace, forgiveness, life and love!"