Post-Sept. 11, interfaith talks take on added urgency

ASSISI, Italy — Events like the recent interfaith peace day organized by the Vatican — and the interfaith programming that will accompany the World Economic Forum this week in New York — are increasingly important in a world threatened by religious extremism, leading rabbis say.

"After Sept.11, it is more important than ever that religion be seen as potentially part of the solution rather than the problem," said David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee's international director for interreligious affairs.

Rosen was one of about 200 rabbis, imams, priests and patriarchs from a dozen world faiths who converged Jan. 24 on Assisi, the central Italian town where St. Francis was born, for a "Day of Prayer for Peace in the World."

He is also attending religious programming alongside the World Economic Forum, which began yesterday and will run through Monday in New York instead of its customary location in Davos, Switzerland.

"Especially seeing and hearing about Muslim leaders embracing Jewish and Christian leaders, and pledging themselves to peace and refuting the violent abuse of religion, sends a powerful message against stereotyping and hostile prejudice," Rosen said in an interview about the Assisi event.

The participants in Assisi were responding to an urgent invitation from Pope John Paul II in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the ensuing war in Afghanistan.

The aim was to hammer home the message that religion must never be used as an excuse for violence, war or terrorism.

Participants concluded their day of prayer, reflection and meditation with a joint declaration proclaiming a "firm conviction that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion."

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation said it was important that this message was sent out by representatives of so many different faiths — not just Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but also Buddhism, Shintoism and other Asian and African religious.

"Symbolism is a very important means of communication," Schneier said in an interview. "Leaders of many religions took part, not just the 'Children of Abraham.' This conveyed a sense of the common destiny of mankind."

The fallout from Sept. 11 also led to an expansion of religious programming at the World Economic Forum.

Last year was the first time that some dozen religious leaders were invited for interreligious discussion alongside the economic talks.

This year about 40 religious leaders are participating. They are responsible for forming a permanent religious council under the auspices of the World Economic Forum.

This week's gathering signals a rare meeting involving Israeli rabbis and clerics from Saudi Arabia and Iran, Rosen said.

Along with the archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey and Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Capetown, Prince Turki Al-Saud from the Saudi royal family and Ayatollah Mohajerani, director of the International Center for Islamic Civilization in Iran, are joining a dialogue with Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, one of Israel's chief rabbis.