25 Years Later: The Assisi Event and Interfaith Cooperation

religious leaders at Assisi in 1986

Prof. Desmond Cahill, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia, delivered an address on the 25th Anniversary of the “Assisi Event” held at the Chapter House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, 23rd October 2011.

Occasional address given at the 25th anniversary service, Assisi in Melbourne: Faith in Service for Peace, held at the Chapter House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, 23rd October 2011 sponsored by the Faith Communities Council of Victoria and the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne

We have gathered, twenty-five years later, to recall ‘the event of Assisi’ as Pope John Paul II would later label it. Assisi, peaceful and serene as always with its abiding mediaeval ambience, has a special place in the lives of many, not least my own. In 1969, a group of young Australian theological students from the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, participated in a series of academic seminars held at the various shrines to St. Francis and St. Clare in and around the town, in the hills above and down on the plain below at the Portiuncola. The theme of the seminars was ecumenical and interfaith relations, led by a rotund, jovial English scholar, Fr. Freddie Davis, an Anglican priest and monk who had crossed the Tiber. We learned how the Anglicans had initiated the ecumenical movement in the 1860s, the Malines conversations, the Church of South India, John XXIII and so on.

Seventeen years later, in a great prophetic act that is still murmured against in revisionist Catholic circles, Pope John Paul II joined with 71 representatives of other non-Christian religions as well as with other Christian leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. The purpose of the gathering was to pray that the gift of peace would embrace the whole world. Later that year in December, reflecting on the year past, John Paul called the event “a visible illustration, a concrete example, a catechesis, intelligible to all,” of interreligious dialogue.

As he insisted at the time, it was never an exercise in minimizing religious differences or negotiating a religious consensus; still less was it an exercise in religious relativism or syncretism; it was never an admission that religions are more or less equal or the same. In his view, peace was the result of prayer and the religions, notwithstanding their differences, are called through prayer to make their contribution to the birth of a world that is more human, more just and more fraternal.

The choice of Assisi as the venue for this multi-faith prayer service was, of course, inspired by the meeting during the Fifth Crusade between Francis of Assisi and the Sultan Malik al-Kamil at the port of Damietta in Egypt early in September, 1219. It seems that they spent about three days in conversation, strong and devout Muslim meeting strong and devout Catholic.

However, in deference to historical truth and to our Muslim brothers and sisters, we need to go in search of the historical Francis as distinct from the Francis of the competing groups within the Franciscan family. Some paint Francis as a pacifist ecumenist who rejected the crusades, thought negatively about Islam and was partly engaged in the pursuit of martyrdom.

Recent historical research by Muslim and Christian scholars paints a more nuanced picture. There is little doubt that Francis would not have been impressed by the rampant brutality of the crusader soldiers. But it is impossible to say that he was opposed to the crusades as such though he was opposed to the battle on the 29th August because he thought that the crusaders would be defeated – which they were. The sultan, with a strong belief in God and service, then offered a truce, perhaps inspired by the Qur’anic text, “Do thou incline towards peace, and trust in God; for He is the One who heareth and knoweth (all things). Should they (your enemies) intend to deceive thee, verily God suffices thee; He it is that hath strengthened thee with his aid and with (the company of) the believers (Q 8, 61-62)”. The truce made the meeting with Francis possible.

Fra Angelico, St. Francis before the Sultan, ca. 1429, Lindenau Museum, Altenberg

Sultan al-Kamil, nephew of the brilliant Kurdish general known in the West as Saladin, ruled Egypt from 1218 – 1238 during the Fifth and Sixth Crusades. Whilst some Muslims see him as a weak leader, Islamic history sees him as a good and moral person and a man of honour, who however paid for his principles. According to the Islamic scholar, Fareed Munir, his brother Al-Mu’azzam bitterly opposed his many offers of peace to the Christians. When during the Sixth Crusade he ceded Jerusalem to the crusaders, Muslims reacted with fury. It is very clear that Francis went on his peace mission with the dominant intention to missionize the Muslims, believing that Christianity was the best faith to bring peace to the Muslims. Believing that all human beings needed Christ for salvation, Francis confronted the sultan and his fellow Muslims with the necessity of conversion. Both came away from the dialogue wiser and more knowledgeable.

What are the lessons for today? Firstly, it would seem that during the extended conversations, Francis learned about the Islamic faith from Sultan Malik al-Kamil with both desiring peace more than war. It seems that Francis grew beyond the prejudices of the Western political and ecclesiastical hierarchy which saw Islam as a religion of the sword. He came away with a new perspective on his own faith and a new appreciation of Muslims and the Islamic faith. Muslim scholars detect in Francis’ subsequent writings echoes and resonances of his encounter with Islamic practices and phrases. Muslims began to be included in his world view. Both the Sultan and Francis had crossed the threshold of each other’s ignorance.

Secondly, it is a reminder that in our globalizing and multicultural world to be religious is to be interreligious, and that religious leaders at all levels have important social cohesion responsibilities in our civil society. After 9/11 they are under greater scrutiny and accountability. Thirdly, it is a reminder that interreligious activity needs to be based on truth and justice and in the quest for global and regional peace and for social cohesion in our nation.

This implies that all faiths need to be careful how they represent events and how they portray each other and how they report each other. For example, the very first reports, though quickly corrected, of the Norwegian massacres blamed Islamic extremists. More recently, in the Coptic killings in Cairo, the point needs to be made that Muslims who had gone to defend the Copts were also killed. We must be careful how we represent other faiths and their beliefs. For example, it is not acceptable that Christians are represented as polytheists or that Christ and the Buddha are idols. As the case of Anton Breivik shows, we need as a society to be careful not of ideas but of dangerous ideas that are picked up from hate websites and websites that propagate skewed versions of history across the internet.

Assisi in Melbourne - Faith Service for Peace

The 1986 Assisi event has had a ripple effect. The King of Morocco went home and held a multifaith service in the Catholic cathedral in Rabat. And the Venerable Edo Yamada went back, and an annual multi-faith peace service is held on or close to Hiroshima Day. And the Vatican opened up relations with the Hindus, especially through the Somaiya Institute in Mumbai attached to the University of Bombay. Its founder and funder, Shantilal Somaiya, a very devout Hindu, would die tragically here in Melbourne at the Alfred Hospital early in January 2010 following his collapse after the opening ceremony of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. In his memory, I want to conclude with a short Hindu prayer:

Loving Father, perfect teacher, patient guide in these troubled times;
Sitting with you, the perfect One, I take the influence of your company
To teach me the way of reconciliation, wisdom and harmony.
I see you, the embodiment of all solutions for the world and myself at this time.
Touch my heart and my conscience daily, that all I do
Will work towards your goal of perfection and peace for all people.

List of References

  • Hoose, A. (2010) Francis of Assisi’s way of peace? His conversion and mission to Egypt. Catholic Historical Review, 96, 3, 449 – 469.
  • McDonald, K. (2011) Power of prayer: Ecumenism and the spirit of Assisi. The Tablet, 22nd October. Downloaded on 21/10/2011 from www.thetablet.co.uk/article/161880
  • Munir, F. (2008) Sultan al-Malik Muhammed al-Kamil and Saitn Francis: interreligious dialogue and the meeting at Damietta. Journal of Islamic Law and Culture, 10, 3, 307 – 317.

Source: Professor Desmond Cahill, OAM.

Educated in Australia and Italy, Des Cahill, Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University, has been a world leading researcher and teacher in the areas of immigrant, cross-cultural and international studies for more than three decades.

Prof. Desmond Cahill

Since the events of September 11th 2001, he has played a major role in researching and bringing together the various faith communities in Australia and across the world through his research and community activities. He currently chairs the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace International, the world’s largest interfaith organization, and represents Australia on the executive committee of the Religions for Peace Asia – in October 2008, he was elected its Deputy Moderator by the Governing Board representing the 18 member nations including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the two Koreas. He is a member of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations (APRO) and of the Victoria Police Multifaith Advisory Council.

In 2006, he led Melbourne’s successful bid, in competition against Delhi and Singapore, to host the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 3rd – 9th December 2009, the world’s largest interfaith gathering. As a consequence, he has been made an Ambassador for Club Melbourne, a group of 100 leading scientists and academics, to promote the image of Melbourne around the world.

In the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, he was awarded the Order of the Medal of Australia for “services to Intercultural Education and to the Interfaith Movement”. Professor Cahill is Chair, Religions for Peace Australia.

Photo Credit: Flickr