Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue

Kraków, September 6 – 8 2009

His Beatitude, Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch and All the East, Gregorios III (Laham) was in attendance and contributed in two forums, Session 7 and Panel 21.

More than five hundred leaders of the world's great religions, together with political leaders and scholars gathered in Kraków from September 6 to 8 at the invitation of the Community of Sant'Egidio and Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz to revive the "spirit of Assisi " in the late Pope John Paul II's native city.

Spirit of Assisi

The religious leaders agreed to meet at a crossroads of European history, paving the way for a pilgrimage, unprecedented in size and representation, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, as a token of reconciliation and peace and a symbol of a radical rejection of violence and war as a way of solving international conflicts.

John Paul II inaugurated the historic World Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Assisi on October 27, 1986: an appeal to the God of all religions to grant peace to his world.

Seventy years on from the start of the Second World War and twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe's communist regimes, Stanisław Dziwisz, former secretary of John Paul II, Cardinal Archbishop of Kraków and the Community of Sant'Egidio decided to revive the spirit of Assisi, to spread from Kraków to the rest of the world.

In these hard times of economic crisis and regional conflicts, it is hoped that religions will garner, through dialogue, the spiritual energy needed to restore a vision for the future.

The Participants

Some ten cardinals were present: with Cardinal Dziwisz, were Cardinals Rylko, Etchegaray, Sepe, Sistach, Poupard, Glemp, Macharski, Shirayanagi and McCarrick.

His Beatitude, Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch and All the East, Gregorios III (Laham) was also there to speak in two panels, one of which he also chaired.

From other ancient Eastern and Orthodox Churches , there were Albanian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Cypriot, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Greek, Polish, Romanian, Russian and Syrian representatives.

Participation from different parts of the world was ample and dynamic with representatives of International Christian Communions, of international Christian organizations and of other great world religions, including an appreciable Muslim presence, from Indonesia , India , Egypt , Morocco , Turkey , Lebanon , Ivory Coast and Qatar as well as noteworthy representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

And finally there were many international authorities and heads of state: including representatives from Albania, Costa Rica, Cyprus, East Timor, Poland and Uganda , another important sign of a multi-polar world.

The Opening Eucharist and Addresses

The conference opened with a Eucharistic celebration in the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy. Cardinal Dziwisz and Metropolitan Serafim of the Romanian Orthodox Church each gave a homily on the importance of seeking together peace for the world in the spirit of Assisi . At noon, the conference was linked to the Angelus in the Vatican and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI greeted the congress:

We are compelled to remember the tragic events that sparked one of the most terrible conflicts in history, which caused tens of millions of dead and so much sufferance to the beloved people of Poland; a conflict that unleashed the tragedy of the holocaust and the extermination of scores of other innocent people. May the memory of these events drive us to pray for the victims and for those who still bear wounds in their bodies and in their hearts. May it also stand as an admonishment to all, not to replicate such barbarity but rather to intensify efforts in building long-lasting peace in our times marked by conflict and contraposition, conveying, especially to younger generations, a culture and lifestyle full of love, solidarity and esteem for the other. In this perspective the contribution Religions can and must give is particularly important for promoting forgiveness and reconciliation, opposing violence, racism, totalitarianism and extremism, which debase the image of the Creator in man, removing the vision of God, and ultimately leading to despise for man himself…

Some of the themes of His Holiness' address were echoed in the inaugural address by José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, speaking later that afternoon. His vision of hope for the future of Europe in the twenty-first century, despite, or perhaps because of past conflicts, was that Europe …can become a champion of the values of peace, freedom and solidarity and give our positive contribution. This is the kind of Europe I believe in. A Europe that puts people at the heart of its project. A Europe that puts its values at the heart of the relations with the rest of the world. A Europe which promotes human development in the fullest possible sense. A Europe which promotes the development of "the whole man and of all men."

The Panel Discussions

Monday saw the participants devote both morning and afternoon to discussions led by panels. In the course of the day, twenty-two such sessions were held. His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregorios was a contributor to the morning's discussion as member of the panel: Dialogue of Faith and Culture.

In the afternoon, His Beatitude chaired and contributed to a panel on The Scriptures in Monotheistic Faiths. Patriarch Gregorios was a contributor to the morning's discussion as member of the panel: Dialogue of Faith and Culture.

Memorial Ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Tuesday found the participants walking along the railway tracks to the notorious former death camp at Auschwitz . At the monument to the victims of Nazi Fascism, they were greeted by the Bishop of Bielsko-Zywiec and listened to the testimony of a Jewish witness and a gypsy survivor of the camp.

Appeal for Peace 2009

Later that evening, the various religions and denominations met at various locations for prayers in the old city of Kraków , before walking out together for the Final Ceremony in the Market Square . Cardinal Dziwisz and a representative of the Saint Egidio community addressed the assembled gathering. They were followed by other speakers from different faiths and different communities across the world. Then there was a minute's silence to remember all victims of war, terrorism and violence before an Appeal for Peace 2009, when children of various nationalities gave, on behalf of young people everywhere, an Appeal for Peace to ambassadors and government officials present. After a short address from Cardinal Sistach of Barcelona , the Appeal for Peace was signed and candelabras were lit by the conference participants before the sign of peace was exchanged.


Session 7 Contribution from Patriarch Gregorios III

at the

"Dialogue of Faith and Culture"

Saint Egidio Congress, Kraków 6-8 September 2009

Inter-faith dialogue contributes to cultural exchange and dialogue through religion, just as cultural dialogue and mutual enrichment helps inter-religious rapprochement.

It should be noted that religion cannot be removed from its cultural context and expression. Often religious dialogue which balks at dealing with fundamental, doctrinal inter-faith problems is content to become a profitable dialogue between different religions' traditions and customs, which are an integral part of popular culture.

Session at the Saint Egido Congress in Krakow

On the other hand it should be noted that people's culture and civilization has a great influence on religious discourse and on expressing or formulating faith. Thus during the first Ecumenical Councils the question of how to understand Greek language and Hellenistic linguistic expressions underlay the schism that followed the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Indeed religion really has a geography, history and cultural context, just as faith has a cultural expression influenced by the civilization of the country where that faith is cultivated and lived. Ever since his lecture of 15 September 2005 at Regensburg University , Pope Benedict XVI has ceaselessly repeated and explained the relations between faith and culture, and religion and civilization. Religious thought, closely bound up with civilization, unfolds in an historic and geographic context. This subject, the topic under discussion in this panel, is of considerable significance for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Proper understanding of this relationship is of primary importance in reducing inter-religious tension and the growth of fundamentalism mistakenly based on religion. The misunderstanding of this relationship led to the vehement reaction against the lecture of the Pope, who in citing the religious dialogue between the Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and the Muslim teacher wished precisely to explain the healthy relationship between religion and culture and the effect of religion on culture and of culture on religion.


Starting from these basic preliminaries, I would like to illustrate them by examples, drawn especially from the mixed Muslim-Christian social scenes in the Middle East .

  1. The mutual influence between Arab Christian culture and Arab Muslim culture is noticeable in the East. Since 1992 the Letters of the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs have been continually analyzing and setting out this correlation, by affirming that Christian culture has a partly Muslim aspect and that Islamic culture has a partly Christian aspect.
  2. Arab Christians have set out in their works of prose and poetry Christian thought with some inflexions of Islamic influence. That can be found, for example, in the series of Arab Christian literary works from the late Archbishop of Aleppo, Neophytos Edelby and which is continued by Father Samir Khalil, a Jesuit priest in Lebanon .
  3. Christian expressions appear in the cultural works and poetry of some Muslims, such as, for example, the theme of the cross, the way of the cross and Golgotha , especially when speaking of the Palestinian question. Similarly, Muslim expressions can be found in Christian poetry. Once when traveling with Egypt Air, I was touched to find in that company's magazine, a detailed description of Christian and Muslim festivals.
  4. We often know and appreciate other people's religion through the outward showing of certain religious symbols: for instance, in that magazine of Egypt Air there was an entire page on which could be seen a big rosary surrounding a beautiful cross. On this topic we may note the visual symbols of cross and crescent, fish, special sweets of Christian and Islamic festivals and the practices proper to each feast: such practices and symbols are often the entrance door to introduce religious and cultural dialogue. Once again, we see here the interplay between cultural and religious dialogue and often as we live out these habits and customs of our religion we feel close to the other's religion. Having said that, from Ramadan to Easter eggs, from the special sweets of Ramadan to the processions and folklore proper to each feast: all present an opportunity to experience both a cultural and religious approach. In that way we can understand the positive impact of exchanging good wishes for the feasts among the three religions, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. That impact is enriched by broadcasts on the media explaining those feasts.
  5. On the occasion of the fast of Ramadan, I would like to point out the importance of fasting in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, where we see fasting, which has religious value, influence citizens' social life. Christians took the custom of fasting from Jews, and Muslims took it from Jews and Christians.
  6. However, one should avoid making a habit or socio-religious custom into religious dogma: thus, wearing a headscarf can be a sign of faith for both Christian and Muslim women. Teetotalism can be both Christian and Muslim. The whole male population once wore the clothes now worn by Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious men. One could say the same about food: these practices can be both a means of rapprochement and a source of tension between religions.
  7. The dhimmi system, is a socio-religious system which regulated social relations between Christians and Muslims: however, no religious and doctrinal value can be accorded it. Sadaqah (giving to charity), which is important in Islam, can be found similarly in Judaism and Christianity.
  8. Another important example is the Mediterranean cultural and religious cycle. Indeed we know the universal spread of Greek culture in East and West alike: that Greek culture was Christianized by the Church Fathers and Christians in general. With the advent of Islam, Christians translated the Greek cultural heritage (philosophy, medicine, geometry, astronomy) into Arabic so that cultural Christianity came to influence Islamic culture. In their turn, the Muslims who conquered Spain carried with them that Greek culture which was then translated into Latin and enriched European culture in the Middle Ages. Again we see the importance of cultural and religious dialogue and their interplay.
  9. In my patriarchal Pastoral Letters I invented the expression "Church of the Arabs and Church of Islam ." That expression was intended to analyze, explain and throw light on the deep relationship between Islam and Christianity in the Middle East, across a history that has lasted some 1439 years[1] and during which a profound dialogue has been proceeding, which is both a dialogue of cultures and of religions.
  10. Every believer who experiences his religious faith expresses it in a cultural context peculiar to him, but which is shared with his fellow-citizens of other religions, through religious and cultural values. It should be noted that despite the process of assimilation between various civilizations, it is equally important to keep one's religious and cultural identity. That shows how important it is for Christians, Muslims and Jews to continue to live together in the Middle East , respecting each other's religion, identity, customs and even helping one another to flourish religiously and to enter into a process of mutual enrichment by means of religious and cultural values. That is the authentic basis of dialogue among religions and cultures. And that is the future of the world. And that is why we cultivate in these annual congresses of the Saint Egidio community, according to the way of thinking of the great reunion of Assisi and of Saint Francis, started by Pope John Paul II, son of Poland and Bishop of this diocese where our meeting is being held. The lack of respect for cultural and religious values of the various communities and countries led to the Second World War seventy years ago and which caused victims on a catastrophic scale in twenty-one countries, that is six million in Poland, twenty-five million in the Soviet Union, one point seven million in Yugoslavia, seven million in Germany, one point eight million in Japan and hundreds of thousands of people in other countries. May these meetings in the spirit of Assisi through the efforts of the Saint Egidio community give a new hope to the world suffering from wars and conflicts, especially in the Middle East and the Holy Land ! When I visited Ground Zero in New York four years ago, I made a little speech (and I quote), "The destruction of the twin towers was the triumph of the mystery of evil (mysterium iniquitatis). It is up to us to make the mystery of life (mysterium resurrectionis) triumph so that there may be fulfilled through us the goal that Jesus gave to his mission among men: ‘that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.'"
  11. It should be noted that Judaism can only be understood in the context of the Jewish people and in the same way, the Torah can only be understood in the historical and geographical context in which it was written. For me as a Christian, the Jewish religion enables me to understand the different aspects of my Christian faith and in order to understand my faith I need to look towards the historic Jewish mindset. The same thing can be said of Islam: Islam cannot be understood without having done socio-political research on the Arab peninsula, society, language and customs of the people. The same can be said with regard to Christianity, which developed in a Jewish and pagan context.

Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain

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