The Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi – the fifth of its kind, by my calculation – has come and gone. What have we learned from the experience? First of all, there were lots of people present, all representing various religious groupings, but, and this strikes me as the key thing to remember, all of these people praying for peace are themselves very peaceable people. The people who identify themselves as religiously committed, and equally committed to violence, were not there. So Assisi was essentially the converted preaching to themselves.
Naturally, those who believe in peace should pray for peace and should give a witness to peace, and should also underline the fact that religious warriors have espoused an essentially self-contradictory and incoherent position. This is something that we all need to be reminded of, as I am sure all people of goodwill will agree. However, despite the admirable witness given at Assisi, there is no evidence that those who believe that religion goes with coercion – the Saudi government, the Pakistani government, not to mention ISIS and Boko Haram – were listening or even noticing what was going on in Assisi.
No one can seriously doubt that the Pope and the patriarch of Constantinople are committed to peace and dialogue – no one reasonable, that is. But the tragic truth is that rational discourse is in retreat more or less everywhere. Take the recent hysterical conspiracy theories to come out of Turkey, which hint that the recent coup was somehow a Catholic or Greek Orthodox plot. And this is Turkey, a country that is supposed to be deeply westernised. Needless to say there are other even more distressing examples that one could quote, if one had space to do so. Peace is a gift of God, of course, but it is also something that should be chosen on the grounds of common human rationality; but with rationality in retreat, peace suffers: Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq, Central African Republic, the list is long.
Disappointingly, as far as I was able to discern, the Assisi meeting attracted little interest from the outside world. This magazine carried reports, but the secular press in Britain largely ignored it. Can you blame them? The Pope prays for peace – it’s hardly a story. The usual suspects round themselves up. Tell us something we don’t know, might well have been the response of most news editors.
So what, then, should the Church and other religious people do, if we are to avoid speaking to ourselves in an echo chamber that the world ignores? It is certainly frustrating. The world routinely and ignorantly blames religion for all wars; but when religion wants to promote peace, it covers its ears. When religious people, such as the Christians in the Middle East, are victims of war, it does not want to know. The world is certainly not interested in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue; that rarely makes headlines. By contrast, ISIS and Boko Haram, with their propaganda of the deed, regularly grab the headlines. There is no difficulty for them getting access to the oxygen of publicity.
Assisi seems to have run its course. Something more daring is called for. Just as St Francis inspired the Assisi meetings, perhaps the same saint can help again. He travelled to Egypt to speak to the sultan. Perhaps Pope Francis needs to go to Syria, and go to Ukraine, without a huge retinue, and be with those who are suffering aggression. He wants a Church on the side of those who suffer. His trip to Lesbos certainly caught the world’s attention. A trip to Aleppo would perhaps do the same.