by Murray White and Viviane Hewitt THERE will be a symbolic coming together of the major Churches in Assisi this weekend to pray for reconciliation in the world's conflicts. They will focus on the ethnic strife in Bosnia and call upon Serbian leaders to end the justification of their hostilities in the name of religion.
The gathering has been called by Pope John Paul II, who has expressed deep concern over the increasing levels of interreligious strife across the world, and especially in the former Yugoslavia. The meeting is the first by world religious leaders since the historic gathering of 1986, also in Assisi.
But preparations have been marred by the refusal of some Jewish leaders to attend because the gathering falls on a Sabbath.
Christians from all denominations will pray alongside Muslims, Jews, Hindus and other faiths at the central Italian shrine this Saturday, in what the Pope has described as a "cry to God'". Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville of Birmingham and Bishop John Mone of Paisley will represent the British Catholic hierarchy.
John Paul II called the weekend of prayer at the monastery of St Francis, after the continuing emphasis on the religious dimension to the troubles in Bosnia, as well as the recent inter-faith unrest in India.
There were fears up to the last minute that Orthodox leaders, especially members of the hierarchy in the former Yugoslavia would refuse to attend the Assisi gathering or would object to pressure to end the Balkan conflict.
And a rabbi from the Jewish community in Rome declared that they would not be sharing the Assisi event. Vatican Radio played down the declaration, stressing that participants would certainly include Jews and Muslims.
In the closing months of 1992, some Jewish exponents in Rome had criticised Catholic leaders for not condemning strongly enough recent waves of anti-Jewish violence in the city in the wake of similar outbursts throughout Europe.
In Britain, Church leaders preparing to travel to Assisi, welcomed the Pope's initiative. Leading British Muslim Dr Zaki Badawi called the gathering "a very laudable step towards peace".
Celia Blackden, Secretary to the Bishops' Committee for Other Faiths, hoped that the outside world might recognise this "peaceful response by the Churches as quickly as they condemned the violent reactions that followed the burning of the Mosques in India".
Bishop Mone called upon Catholics in Britain to pray and fast for the success of the Assisi gathering. He said: "The situation in the Balkans is very serious and my heart goes out to all those who are suffering in these cold winter months. I would ask all, irrespective of denomination or religion to deny themselves a meal this weekend and offer that fast and their prayer to God."
Canon Stephen Platten, Ecumenical Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who will represent the Church of England along with the Archbishop of York. Dr John Habgood, said: "Some conflicts are all too easily used as an excuse to classify religions as hostile. A meeting like this shows that is not the case."
Dr Badawi, who is Chairman of the Imans and Mosques Council of Britain. said the fighting in Serbia was a "tragedy of humanity reminiscent of the Crusades".
He said that the Churches needed to "call upon the conscience of Serbian Orthodox leaders to be true to the Gospels. we hear that some orthodox priests are more nationalistic than the Serbian generals".
Speaking just before Christmas, Cardinal Basil Hume described the forthcoming meeting as "an assertion of a belief which 1 share that religion should be a source of healing and peace rather than division, enmity and bloodshed".
The atmosphere at Assisi was clouded by the attempted murder of a friar close to the town's monastery this week. Police described the attacker, a Swiss artist, as "mentally unbalanced". adding he was a "regular" visitor at the monastery.