U.S. hosts interfaith meeting


First time forum will be held here since its founding in 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) – Religious leaders from a broad swath of worldwide faiths met Wednesday at Georgetown University, marking the first time the annual interfaith forum has been held in the United States since it was started 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II.

While the goal of the two-day International Prayer for Peace is not to draft policies, organizers hope it will foster greater ties and communication between major faiths that come into contact more frequently – not always peacefully – in an increasingly globalized world.

This year’s panel discussions reflect that focus. They include the role of religion in combatting AIDS, poverty and genocide, and in resolving conflicts between faiths. Religiously motivated terrorism was also a central theme because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and ensuing war on terror.

An expected 100 speakers from many religions – including Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Mennonites, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Shintoists – as well as charity groups, academics, journalists and diplomats took part.

Karen Hughes, the U.S. undersecretary of state tasked with improving the nation’s image in Islamic countries and elsewhere abroad, said faith has been misused for political ends by terrorist groups. She said religion could help erode support for terrorism, comparing it to the religious dissidence that helped create opposition to slavery in the 19th century.

“Killing oneself and using that death to try to kill as many other innocents in the process is not a legitimate use of any religion,” she said.

Imam Warith D. Mohammed said those who perpetrate terror for religious purposes “have no light.”

“They have no understanding, they can’t see, so they are striking out in the dark,” he said.

Pope John Paul II, who frequently reached out to other faiths, held the first meeting in October 1986 when he gathered with leaders from non-Christian religions in Assisi, Italy, to pray, fast and hold a “World Day of Prayer for Peace.” Several warring governments and insurgent groups in such places as Lebanon and Nicaragua heeded his call for a 24-hour truce that day.

“He knew the more we could get on the same page, the same place, the same relation to a God that loves us all, the more powerful our prayers would be,” said Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as he welcomed the crowd of 500 to Georgetown.

Organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic group based in Rome, the meetings have traditionally been held in Italian and other European cities. Last year, it was in Lyon, France.

While conflicts still exist that use religion as a pretext for violence, such as terrorism, conference organizers said progress has been made.

“Before 1986, this never would have happened,” Sant’Egidio spokesman Mario Marazziti said of the gathering. “Now, sometimes it seems normal. That is the biggest difference.”

AP-ES-04-26-06 2126EDT