VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI has invited Hindus, Jews, Taoists and Muslims to join him next week for a peace pilgrimage to the hilltop town of Assisi — but they won’t pray together because Benedict doesn’t want to show different beliefs and rituals mixing.
The Oct. 27 event marks the 25th anniversary of the first such interreligious prayer for peace, which was promoted by Pope John Paul II and held in the town known for its native son St. Francis.
Pope Benedict XVI didn’t attend that first 1986 meeting and later criticized it as an example of religious relativism — the idea that there are no absolute truths and that all religions are somehow equal — since people of different faiths were seen praying together, jointly.
In 2000 when he was head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued a controversial document in part as a response to the Assisi meeting, which suggested the fullness of human salvation was found in the Catholic Church alone.
Now pope, Benedict is presiding over his first Assisi interreligious gathering, and the decision to eliminate the common, public prayer was seen as his way of further correcting the wrongs from the 1986 event, which was repeated in 2002 albeit with changes.
Vatican officials outlined the day’s schedule Tuesday and released the guest list, which includes a record 300-plus delegates representing dozens of faiths — and even four people who profess no faith whatsoever, a novelty this year.
Some of the big names include Rajhmoon Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi who will head a Hindu delegation, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a delegation from Israel’s rabbinate authority, a Bahai, a Zoroastrian, three Jains, five Sikhs, and a Yoruba.
The Dalai Lama had a conflict and is sending an envoy, and Russia’s Orthodox Church — with which the Vatican is trying to improve ties — is dispatching a representative from Kazakhstan. For the first time a Buddhist from mainland China is coming.
Some 48 Muslims are expected, but none from Cairo’s Al-Azhar institute, the pre-eminent school of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, because it cut ties with the Vatican over Benedict’s call for Christians to be better protected in Egypt.
The delegates will travel together with the pope aboard a train leaving from the Vatican’s train station and will sit together for speeches in Assisi’s St. Mary of the Angels basilica. They’ll have a "spare" lunch together — obviously heavily vegetarian — and then they will go to pray privately, separately in rooms of an Assisi convent.
They’ll come back together for a wrap-up session and light candles as symbols of peace.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, head of the Vatican’s justice and peace office, confirmed that the "novelty" of this year’s agenda is that there is no common, public prayer for peace as there had been in previous Assisi encounters.
"The emphasis is on the pilgrimage, not on the common prayer," he said. But he denied the change represented any negative judgment on past meetings, saying it was merely "a way to try to improve the character itself of inviting exponents of other faiths together."
"It’s an exercise of dialogue, and dialogue always respects the specific identity of the people, of individuals," he told reporters.
Traditionalist Catholics, in particular, were horrified at some of the images broadcast from the 1986 event, where non-Christians were seen praying in Catholic churches and in one, a small statue of a Buddha was reportedly placed on an altar.
Turkson said he had received e-mails from concerned Catholics, including one promising that the sender would celebrate 1,000 Masses of reparation for the harm done in Assisi.
To counter the criticism that the pope was hosting yet another Assisi gathering, the Vatican newspaper has for months been featuring essays by top Vatican cardinals who have sought to put the 2011 Assisi edition in the correct light: That it is merely a pilgrimage of people of different faiths, and that it in no way will involve any religious syncretism, or combining of different beliefs and practices.