Peace march with religious leaders in Munich, 2011 (photo: © Sant Egidio)
Meeting of Religious Scholars in Germany

Old Wounds, New Questions

Under the banner "Bound to live together", an international peace congress promoting dialogue and reconciliation was held in Munich with representatives from all major religions. Yet, issues such as the Middle East conflict, the Arab Spring, and the role of Islam in Europe pose new challenges for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. By Claudia Mende

Ten years after the terrorist attacks of September 11 in New York, some 300 religious scholars and politicians from all over the world met in Munich. After a decade of terrorism and counter strikes, the delegates worked towards new ways of reconciliation and dialogue. Representatives of all Christian denominations, Islamic theologians, rabbis, Buddhist monks, and Hindu delegates talked, prayed, and argued with each other.

Also attending were prominent politicians, such as the Muslim opposition leader from Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, and Fatih Mohammad Baja from the new National Transitional Council in Libya. "There is no alternative to dialogue," stated the closing appeal for peace at the religious meeting. "There is a great temptation just to turn inwards. The global economic crisis merely increases this temptation."

Anwar Ibrahim (photo: © Sant Egidio)
Plea for dialogue and respect: This year's Sant Egidio peace meeting was attended, among others, by Anwar Ibrahim, Muslim opposition leader in Malaysia

​​Hosting the event was the Catholic Sant Egidio movement, which was established in 1968 in Italy. The community, together with its founder, the historian Andrea Ricardi, attempts to mediate in conflicts and contribute to the fight against poverty. Its greatest success was the negotiation of the 1992 peace treaty for Mozambique.

Other attempts have failed, such as mediation work in the Algerian civil war. The members of Sant Egidio are no idle dreamers, but rather tenacious workers, who don't simply give up when things get difficult. Once a year, they bring religious leaders from all of the major religions together for something akin to a religious summit.

Different perspectives

"The next decade cannot be wasted," warned Ricardi at the meeting's opening ceremony. "A change in direction is required." Yet, this is not easy, as divisions run deep. Jews are concerned about the future of Israel, while Muslims regard Israel as the main hurdle to peace in the Middle East. Arab Christians demand comprehensive freedom of religion, while European Muslims want Islam to finally be recognized as an integral component of Europe. Every religious community has its own perspective, and this is not always compatible with the perspectives of others.

One of the main themes at the peace congress was the situation of Christians in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. In response, one could hear many platitudes and diplomatic, but empty phrases. Christians and Muslims always assure each other of their mutual respect.

Kardinal Marx, Sant Egidio-founder Ricardi and President Wulff at the memorial of 9/11 during the international peace congress (photo:© Erzbistum München)
"The next decade cannot be wasted": Andrea Ricardi (center) next to Germany's President Christian Wulff during the opening ceremony

​​Despite this, it quickly becomes clear the extent of the mutual mistrust. Egyptian Copts expressed their concern about fanatical and extremist Muslim movements, such as the Salafists.

"A lot of things are troubling us at the moment," said Antonios Naguib, Coptic-Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, "like the lack of security, growing poverty, and the increase in religious conflicts. In particular, the appearance of Salafists in post-revolutionary Egypt is one of the main causes of concern among Copts.

Mahmoud Azab, a spokesman from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, stressed, "Salafists have nothing at all to do with the authentic Islam of Azhar. The extremists are also our prime enemy. However, you have to consider that Egypt finds itself in a phase of unrest."

The theologian Hassan Shafie from Al-Azhar referred to the "Al-Azhar Declaration", a paper published in July 2011, in which the distinguished university demands a modern constitutional system for Egypt and thereby disassociates itself with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. "The Sharia should not be the sole source of law in Egypt. We need the experiences of other legal systems," stressed Shafie.

The Egyptian revolution has only just begun

The Coptic journalist Mina Fouad criticized his own religious community, as well. "In the past, we have isolated ourselves too much. We must open ourselves up to Egyptian society, because only that which is unknown can elicit fear among others," he said. Whether Muslims are able to succeed in allaying the fears of Christians might be doubted, but the value of such discourse is immense. Muslim and Coptic representatives as well as politicians and journalists from Egypt were all in agreement about one thing – the Egyptian revolution has only just begun. Only a democratically elected government can attempt to grapple with the political, economic, and social changes.

Muslims at the international peace congress in Munich (photo: © Erzbistum München)
Difficult dialogue: During the conference, Christians and Muslims always assured each other of their mutual respect, but despite this the extent of the mutual mistrust was always apparent, writes Claudia Mende

​​Syrian bishops also fear radical Islamism. They expressed their fears with reservation, considering the current political situation in their country. Greek-Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo spoke of his concern about the end of the Syrian model of tolerance. Christians fear that the overthrow of Assad might result in "a fundamentalist regime that would destroy the unique pluralistic identity of Syria," he said. This is why they are still hoping for reform of the regime. "The Assad regime must devote more effort to public participation, but this transformation must preserve the co-existence of religions."

Away from the public eye, Sunni Muslims attempted in vain to convince Church representatives to move closer to the opposition against President Assad. Until now, Church officials in Syria have, at least publically, always voiced support for the regime, because they don't trust the opposition. "We don't believe the opposition when they claim that Sharia law won't be introduced after the overthrow of Assad," said one official, who did not wish to be named.

Right-wing populism in Europe

Islamophobia and right-wing populist movements in Europe were not explicitly scheduled topics at the peace congress. Yet, outside the event stood representatives of the newly formed party "Die Freiheit" under a police cordon and with banners displaying anti-Islamic slogans.

Neither the European Churches nor representatives of Islam currently have an answer as to how to effectively react against such increasingly aggressive movements. The variety of Muslim participants, not only those from the Arab world, but also from Malaysia and Indonesia, clearly displayed that Islam has "many dimensions," said Susanne Bühl from the German community of Sant Egidio. This contributes to a better understanding of Islam. "Many important discussions also took place behind the scenes."

The next international peace congress is planned to take place in 2012 in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.

Claudia Mende

© 2011

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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