Bound to live together: religions and cultures in dialogue

Sant’Egidio Meeting for Peace – Munich 11-13 September 2011

On September 11, an international meeting of prayer for peace organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio, the twenty-fifth since its inception in Assisi in 1986, opened with a Eucharistic celebration at Munich Cathedral, Germany. Some two thousand people including politicians, journalists and academics, and many members of the Sant’Egidio Community from various European and other countries and clerical representatives of different world religions were welcomed by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich-Freising.


The representatives

The Roman Catholic Church was represented by some twelve Cardinals and archbishops and lay-people from Europe, South America, India and Africa, while Eastern Catholic Churches were represented notably by three Patriarchs, Cardinal Antonios (Naguib) of Alexandria, Gregorios III (Laham) of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and Ignatius Joseph III (Younan) of the Syrian Catholic Church. Melkite Archbishops Elias Chacour and Jean Jeanbart were also present. The Eastern Orthodox Churches were represented by Patriarch Daniel of the Romanian Orthodox Church and by Metropolitans of the Ecumenical, Antiochian, Russian and Romanian Patriarchates and of the Albanian, Greek and Cypriot Churches and of the Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches. Protestant Churches represented included French, Czech, Lutheran and Anglican denominations. Distinguished representatives of the Jewish, Islamic, Druze, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist and Shinto faiths and denominations were also assembled and would later participate as speakers and leaders of discussion in panels.

The programme

On Sunday afternoon, there was a solemn commemoration of the events of September 11, 2001, with a video link to New York from the Marstallplatz and eyewitness testimony. At the afternoon assembly, participants heard a message from His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI and were greeted by the founder of the Sant’Egidio Community, the Minister-President of Bavaria, the Presidents of the German Federal Republic, of Guinea, and of Slovenia.

In the succeeding two days, several panels were concerned with the Middle East and with the relations between Christianity and Islam, both themes of close concern and interest to Patriarch Gregorios III. They included: Panel 5, The Arab Spring: Egypt, chaired by Patriarch Antonios; Panel 6, Prayer at the Root of Peace, chaired by Mar Ignatius Joseph III; Panel 12, What Future for the Arab World? and Panel 13, Freedom and the Arab World. Monday evening Forums included: Dialogue and Peace in the Middle East and Christians in the Middle East.

Patriarch Gregorios’ contribution

On 13 September, in the Large Conference Room of the City Hall, Patriarch Gregorios III chaired a Panel (No. 31) on Muslim-Christian dialogue: a new Era.

Said Aqil Siroj, Sayyid Jawad al-Khoei, Mar Ignatius Joseph III, Patriarch Gregorios III, Mahmoud Azab, Mustafa Cerić, Bp. Michel Santier

“My speech is mainly based on living in an Arab Muslim-Christian mixed society in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. We Arab Christians are in a very deep relationship with Muslim Arabs in our Arab countries: we are of their flesh and blood, tribe, society, civilization, culture and traditions. We constitute a Church which daily, for the last fourteen hundred and thirty-two years has been living side by side with Islam, profoundly influenced by Islam and in turn influencing it. Primarily, this is a dialogue of life, about life, an everyday conversation, for every circumstance.

We learned that in the classrooms of the minor seminary, and in the major seminary of Holy Saviour, which this year is celebrating its third centenary. Then we learned this life conversation during the period of the parliamentary elections. The various groups came to us at Holy Saviour: we welcomed them. We also lived this life dialogue during the big national religious festivals for Muslims and Christians as common feasts for all. We exchanged congratulations.

We lived this life dialogue in circumstances of war, crises and sectarian disturbances, in circumstances of hunger and great calamity, as for example, during the First World War, when Holy Saviour gave daily food to all the poor people who came to it. In the end, the Economos said to the Superior General, ‘We have no more food even for ourselves. Shall we save what we have so that we can have something to eat?’ The Superior General said, ‘No. Carry on giving to all the poor people here. We shall eat together or fast together.’ On the day that the supplies were running out, mules came from the south, from the house of Zain, a big Shi’ite (we call them Metwalli) family, bringing grain to Holy Saviour. So Holy Saviour was able to continue feeding the poor. Some thirty years later, when the Zain family was in severe financial difficulties, Holy Saviour immediately intervened to save their financial situation. Similarly, in 1956, there was a big earthquake throughout the whole of Lebanon and some two hundred villages were destroyed. We went out into all the Christian and Muslim villages to help rebuild the houses.

Later, we learnt this vital, life conversation in our studies, both in Lebanon, where we studied Islam, and later, when we did our specialist studies in Rome.

We learnt this life dialogue at work, in the professions. Our workforce consists both of Christians, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Druze.

We experienced this in mixed schools and universities, where there are Christians and Muslims, and in our welfare and charitable institutions and in social work. In 1966 I founded the social centre in South Lebanon, a craft school and orphanage where all were welcome. They were all centres of meeting and life dialogue. In the Holy Land I founded four clinics where health care was given to some ninety thousand mostly Muslim people.

Further, we experienced this – and this is very important – through mutual trust, charity, service and giving. That is why I don’t use the word ‘tolerance’ in speaking of Muslim-Christian dialogue. The term ‘tolerance’ cannot give the meaning of real dialogue. I prefer to use the words, acceptance, trust, love, respect, solidarity.

Now, speaking of the current situation, what is really lacking in East-West dialogue is trust. People don’t trust the Arab world, and the Arab world doesn’t trust European society. That is why we always fall into mutual accusations: of crusades – from Muslims to Christians, and terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism – from Christians to Muslims. That is why we must overcome this dialectic of aggressive wars by Muslims on Christians, such as Muslims at Poitiers, the Umayyads in Spain, and the battles of Lepanto and Vienna, with the Turks at the gates of Vienna, for example; or Western crusades and colonisation, such as that of the French in Algeria, or the mandate over Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. We must go beyond this dialectic of war down the centuries to engage in real cultural dialogue. This is really important for intensifying Muslim-Christian dialogue, and working strenuously, powerfully and decisively to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has lasted for sixty-three years. That is why there is no longer any trust between the Muslim Arab world and a Europe, which does not do what is necessary to resolve this conflict. An opportunity is given to Europe: to recognize the State of Palestine alongside Israel. As two states they can resolve all problems later.”

His Beatitude went on to offer some thoughts from his recent speeches, including those given at the opening of the Liqaa Centre, Lebanon in May this year, at the First Muslim-Christian Congress in Damascus in December last year, and one given in Cambridge at the Interfaith Conference in 2008. (See the website of the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate.)

He concluded:

“What is important in talking of the Church and of Islam is the love which must really unite our hearts and make each brother a friend, close to our heart, a citizen who is a companion with us in life. The important thing is that the Church be able to engage in dialogue with the Muslim world and with Islam. What is required of the Church and its members is to love Muslims and Islam on the basis of our faith and not on the basis of a passing feeling, so that together, we Muslims and Christians may build in our Arab countries the civilization of love.”

The reunion concludes

Later that morning, an official ceremony was held at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, with a wreath-laying and testimony from three survivors and witnesses.

In the evening, after a time of meditation at various places of worship, a closing ceremony was held in the Marienplatz. All the contributing speakers were invited to light a candle of a candelabrum and to sign an appeal for peace. After exchanging the sign of peace, the participants departed in a closing procession. Next year’s Sant’Egidio reunion will be head in Sarajevo, as announced in closing addresses by Pero Sudar, Auxiliary Bishop of Vrhbosna and the Grand Mufti of Sarajevo, Dr. Mustafa Cerić of Bosnia-Herzegovina.