“The Spirit of Assisi is alive and religious fundamentalism no longer convinces the masses,” affirms without hesitation Marco Impagliazzo from Madrid, where the International Meeting “Peace Without Borders,” promoted by the Sant’Egidio Community is underway (presided over by Impagliazzo), recalling the historic Day of Prayer for Peace convoked in Assisi by St. Pope John Paul II in 1986, with representatives of all the world religions.
There are 300 leaders and representatives of the principal world religions in Madrid, from more than 60 countries worldwide.
Among the topics to be addressed, from September 15-17, is today’s religious fundamentalism and the conflicts that contribute to it. “However, we must not be nostalgic,” exhorts Impagliazzo. “The East/West bipolar world, with the risk of a nuclear holocaust, was not more peaceful or less frightening.”
Every year since 1987, this Meeting has been held in a different city of Europe. However, since the 2018 encounter in Bologna, there has been the joint signature of Pope Francis and of the Grand Imam of Al Ahzar al Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi (where ZENIT’s Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov, was on the papal flight for the first visit of a Pope to the Arabian Peninsula), of the “Document on Human Fraternity: for World Peace and Living Together.
“I would say that with Abu Dhabi, the Spirit of Assisi has entered Islam definitively, and that we must expect beautiful surprises after so much diffidence,” comments Impagliazzo from Madrid.
Here is the exclusive interview with ZENIT’s Senior Vatican Correspondent on the ground for the annual encounter held this year in the Spanish capital:
ZENIT: Religious fundamentalism and intolerance advance in many countries. There comes to mind, among the cruelest episodes of the last 12 months, the attack on two mosques in New Zealand, in March, and the Easter attacks in the churches of Sri Lanka. The persecution of religious minorities, especially Christian, continues in many countries . . . How can one not yield to pessimism?
Marco Impagliazzo: Pessimism is impotent and marks a decline, also spiritual: the idea that nothing can be done but defend oneself with the same violence. From this to thinking that nothing should be done, the step is brief. However, that doesn’t mean that one isn’t worried and afflicted by the many episodes of violence as those mentioned. We see incidents of intolerance and racism also in our European countries. Acts of terrorism affect us increasingly, particularly when defenseless people, civilians and people that pray are attacked. One certainly must react, but not with a gloomy turning back, thinking that the only way to respond to a blow, is another blow: it’s precisely this that the terrorists want. All these wars, waged in the name of the fight against terrorism, have only created more <wars> and haven’t resolved anything. We must have the honesty to admit it. Instead, we must react increasingly with talks and concrete acts of peace. To bring religious leaders to Madrid is part of such a reaction. Together, the leaders of the great world religions reinforce one another in condemning every form of violence and in affirming that peace alone is holy.
ZENIT: Is it still possible to believe that the religions are the solution to war, and that they are not, instead, part of the problem? And how is it possible? We think of Ukraine, Churches of the same family, Orthodox, which blow on the fire of opposite nationalisms…
Marco Impagliazzo: They are and will be increasingly if together they go to the profound root of their faiths, where a common desire for peace is inscribed. The meeting between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam al Tayyeb at Abu Dhabi is a powerful sign of this: religions don’t wage war, it’s men who do. It’s evident to all that the Ukrainian drama is a geopolitical drama, made of borders, acts of force, political pressures and economic hegemonies. The Churches can’t become an ethnic or nationalist instrument in the hands of politicians. If they yield to this they betray themselves. It’s an alarm bell for all of us: if the Church becomes an ethnic or nationalist weapon in the hands of others, she loses her evangelic mission. The Church prays for peace and not for victory.
ZENIT: What is the state of health of the Spirit of Assisi today? Is it true, as one hears it said by more sides, that today’s world is more closed, more afraid than in the past?
Marco Impagliazzo: The world is afraid because it is disoriented in face of the rapid and unexpected changes. Paradoxically, being materially closer it tends to be distanced psychologically. So it seeks refuge in the primary solidarities: land and nation. However, we Christians know well that in the course of history that already happened and has given bad proof of it. The Spirit of Assisi continues to spread throughout the world. The Abu Dhabi meeting of fraternity is a direct fruit of it. For years we, at Sant’Egidio, have cultivated friendship with al Azhar and the Grand Imam al Tayyeb. Nothing must be taken for granted or yield to the culture of the enemy. There are signs — perhaps little noted by the press — of how the Spirit of Assist is alive: the Algerian masses demonstrate this, seeking freedom peacefully, manifesting this for months, rejecting either violent fundamentalism or military dictatorship. Sant’Egidio has worked so much for peace in that country. We have never yielded to the ideology of the “clash.” The same can be said for what is happening in Sudan, in South Sudan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Central Africa and elsewhere. There certainly are old and latent wars and many conflicts yet to be resolved. However, the religions are increasingly less involved actively in forums of the clash and in ways of hatred. The trajectory of fundamentalism itself — I’d say, rather, of fundamentalisms — no longer convinces the masses. And then, one must not be nostalgic: the world of East/West bi-polarity, with the risk of a nuclear holocaust, was not more peaceful or less frightening.
ZENIT: A topic, in many round tables, is that of the mass media. Today communication is strong in very powerful instruments, but it often ends up by fuelling conflict. What role does communication have in promoting peace and tolerance between the different religions?
Marco Impagliazzo: It can have a great role if the media remains attached to the complex truth of the reality and doesn’t yield to simplifications. The media can be manipulated and become an instrument of hatred — if you think of the tragic role of Radio Milles Collines in the Rwandan genocide. The representation of the other, of the different one, is one of the questions on which the media must always question itself. It must not submit itself to the idea of the creation of the enemy, but must accept the challenge to explain the complexity. It worries me when bellicose language pervades the media itself, including in other situations. For instance, the question of migrants treated in terms of landings, invasion, weapon of mass occupation, etc. – all military terms. It’s very important to be able to choose the words and refrain from the temptation to shout inflamed titles. This would already make a great contribution to the promotion of peace and tolerance. I would like the media to re-launch the reality for what it is, without tinging it with cynicism and skepticism, as often happens, as if what is well and good ever counted less than what is bad or evil. The media is not very successful in giving voice to the “ingenuity of the good.”
ZENIT: In Pope Francis’ addresses, he often turns to the subject of walls and populisms, of which the Pope says he is worried. According to him, speeches are heard that recall in fact the rise of Nazism. Last September 1 was exactly the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Should we think that a new war like that could also breakout?
Marco Impagliazzo: If it is because of this the war has already broken out. According to the Pope, every war is a world war from the moment that it has causes and effects beyond itself. I don’t see a probable war in Europe between the democracies, although we must be attentive: authoritarian and sovereignty speeches want to divide Europe, as they do in other parts of the world. We note it with orbanism, a sort of illiberal authoritarianism that intends to become a model for others. The good news is that up to today, Europe has been able to resist it, despite all its limitations. It has resisted it in its Parliaments, as is seen in the Italian and British crises, which have been able to reaffirm their prerogative in face of those who sought “full powers.” It has been resisted among the people with the European elections, which did not give a majority to the forces hostile to unity and supporters of populisms and racisms. It is resisting the disintegrating forces propounded by other authoritarian powers. Politically, Europe is confirmed the best defense of democracy and tolerance in the world.
ZENIT: The other subject in evidence at Madrid will be migrations. On one hand the Church preaches hospitality and, on the other, she recognizes to the host nations the right to put limits to this phenomenon. The political debate around this topic is fiery . . . In your opinion, where is it just to seek the point of balance?
Marco Impagliazzo: On migrations we must realize that the meeting can be source of future and of great surprises; the protagonists of this migratory event are not those that receive and listen, but what arises more from it; I would say that the embrace is the true protagonist. The balance lies in governing the processes, conscious that they are structural. There is a strong demographic drop in the West and, at the same time, a need for arms and minds. If the process that obtains them isn’t governed, a brusque rejection occurs, a violent reaction, as we know. If it’s governed the contrary happens, a happy meeting even in cases of crises. I give the example of the humanitarian corridors conceived by Sant’Egidio and realized with the Evangelical Churches and CEI [Italian Episcopal Conference]. Thousands of people from Syria, Iraq and the Horn of Africa have found in Europe solidarity and opportunities. This is the result of an action carried out with love and intelligence by Sant’Egidio and by the Catholic and Protestant Churches in connection with the civil society. When phenomena are governed fear declines and racism disappears. Concretely: if the EU adopted the corridors, we would no longer have any migrant emergency in Europe. Suffice it to multiply it by a hundred, by a thousand. It’s what we are proposing: a true policy of hospitality and integration, which sees European society as protagonist, where there are many more resources of humanity than one thinks.
ZENIT: In the last twelve months, a fundamental step forward, in the inter-religious dialogue, was the Abu Dhabi Document, signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Ahzar al Tayyeb. How do you judge the impact that this Document has had? Will it be discussed in Madrid?
Marco Impagliazzo: Certainly. As I said earlier, it’s a great step in relations between Christians and Muslims. I would say that, with Abu Dhabi, the Spirit of Assisi has entered definitively in Islam and that we must expect beautiful surprises, after so much diffidence. That Document is historic: it evokes the unity of the human race and points out only one true problem: war. When it states that the “true enemy of human fraternity is individualism, which means affirming oneself and one’s group over others,” it is a spectacular advance! We must have more confidence in the seeds of peace and dialogue sowed in these decades in the Spirit of Assisi. This is also the greatness of the Church of Rome, which since the second half of the last century has taken upon herself the responsibility of the global dialogue between religions, although being the largest religious denomination. Because of this, when the Pope travels he is received with spontaneous joy by all, including Non-Catholics. He represents the greatest religious figure. And we, of Sant’Egidio, are happy and grateful for having worked on this path and for having taken the Spirit of Assisi everywhere.
ZENIT: On other occasions, during these meetings, the idea arose if creating a sort of UN of religions, a permanent organization of dialogue and confrontation between the religions, which goes beyond the occasion of a meeting, although good as this one of Madrid is. Is it just an idea or could it become something more?
Marco Impagliazzo: The “Men and Religions” meetings we organize every year already represent such an area of permanent dialogue. New children are born of every edition, which give life to important local initiatives. The World Day of Prayer for Peace, which this year is being held in Madrid, is also being held in unison, on our initiative, in many other parts of the world. Therefore, it’s not about an occasional meeting but about a true and proper architecture of peace. I don’t think an organizational structure is necessary for this: to institutionalize often suffocates. At stake here is something more than an organization: to be able to live the spirit through the human, through the experience of the peoples, and also through the presence of a Community. It’s not a congress as so many, which are held. There is a Community that welcomes and gives the human and fraternal tone to the event. The human dimension is people with their stories, difficulties and successes. The prayer of Madrid gathers all this in a fraternal spirit, re-launching it beyond us, towards another we don’t know now but that we pray and hope will be more peaceful and beautiful. In Italian terms, I would say: this is “the great beauty!”