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Andrea Riccardi

Historian, Founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio

These days are bringing together in Rome the leaders and believers of various religions alongside secular humanists, not in the confines of a laboratory, but facing the scenarios of the world, confronting war. Indeed, war has returned to Europe's soil with the Russian invasion of the tormented Ukraine and still no way out is in sight. After all, this global world of ours, by configuration, plurality of actors and power of armaments, is favorable to the eternalization of wars that have no end, as it is today in Syria, where there are young people whose young lives have only seen wartime. 

We must listen to the "cry for peace" that comes from various parts of the world! These are also days of prayer and spirituality. Prayer is the sister to the cry of pain of those who are suffering from war and poverty. In every cry as well as in every invocation the demand for a more humane future is expressed. 

The meeting of these days is the result of a history that I would like to briefly recall. We come from afar. We come as the Community of Sant'Egidio, born in 1968 among young people, the poor and the peripheries. We come, as friends of dialogue, from the great century that was the twentieth century, which was also a time of terrible conflicts. We never felt as our own the excited forgetfulness of the present. Hannah Arendt wrote, "memory and depth are the same thing, or rather, humankind can reach depth only through memory." Depth is a resource of freedom in the face of the arrogant simplifiers of our time, which is instead in itself so complex, indeed inexplicable through simplifications.

Religions are not fossils, which modernity and scientific thinking will eventually bury, as so much Western public thought believed. They are living organisms: they gather the yearnings of communities rooted in the lands, close to the pain, joy and sweat of people. I have seen the prayer of the desperate in inhuman places or in the terrible journeys of refugees. Religions do not enclose themselves in the bubble like several institutions. They generally remain on the ground and among homes: the synagogue, the church, the mosque, the temple. That is why, if you want to humiliate the soul of a people, you destroy the sacred places and violate women.

We witnessed a turning point: the 1986 meeting in Assisi, the homeland of St. Francis. There, then, John Paul II proposed a vision: religions, not against each other, but together and praying for peace. A vision that overcame mutual ignorance and conflicts between believers. It was still the time of the Cold War. John Paul II looked beyond that and sensed that every religion, when it tends toward peace, is at its best. 

Assisi in 1986 was an inspiring vision for us. A message that prepared for globalization from the perspective of a common destiny in diversity. To this vision we have tried to be faithful. I express it in the words of French anthropologist Germaine Tillion, who escaped from the Nazi lager: "All related, all different." 

We have continued, for thirty-five years, up to here, the path of dialogue with meetings, acquaintance, by establishing a network in friendship and exchange. We have stopped in various parts of the world, bringing together wise spiritual figures, peace seekers, restless souls, thoughtful lay people. And always in confrontation with the historical, human and political reality of the moment. Dialogue, even when it deals with the Eternal, happens in concrete history. In this track, words are important, but so are deeds: for example, peace was born in Mozambique, after a war that caused a million deaths, negotiated 30 years ago, in 1992, in Rome, in Sant'Egidio.

The fall of the Wall and globalization opened a season in which to realize the hopes of the twentieth century. Everything-from economics, to finance, to media-was being unified, ushering a beautiful global era. To a large extent we neglected to negotiate with the winning globalization, often assigning it the role of providence. 

Religions are "the original globalizers"-writes Miroslav Volf-; they profess universal values and believe in one human family. Globalization remains a great opportunity for those who focus on dialogue. But it must be worked at! We wholeheartedly share what you, Mr. President Macron, told the Bernardins in 2018: "There is nothing more urgent today than to increase mutual knowledge of peoples, cultures and religions." 

Indeed, the new global giant needs soul. Soul grows in dialogue, in friendship, in prayer. "Who is truly wise?" -asked a disciple of Rabbi Akivá in the second century. He answered, "He who learns from every man." Dialogue and listening are the fundamental structure of religious traditions. Dialogue with God: prayer; with sacred texts; dialogue among all, also because -as the Russian poet with Ukrainian origins, Evtušenko, wrote: "there are no uninteresting men in the world." Pope Francis, visiting Sant'Egidio years ago, exclaimed with concern, "The world suffocates without dialogue."

Some religious communities, however, have locked themselves into separatism from common history with self-sufficiency. After all, the steps of ancient religions are sometimes cautious. Some religious sectors have sacralized national identities. Others, unfortunately, have lost their souls to violence, terrorism and radicalism, distancing themselves from religion while presenting themselves instead as authentic religion. This is a tragedy for all. 

The global world brought peace, but it also produced a lot of war. The generation of World War II and the Holocaust disappeared into a world that is easy to forget. Over the years, an addiction to the idea that war is a natural companion of history has grown. That heritage of tensions, inherited from the twentieth century that tended to unite destinies across borders, has been dampened. Giorgio La Pira, the initiator of the Mediterranean dialogues, called them "unitive tensions": tensions to peace, ecumenism, responsibility to poorer worlds, cooperation for planetary justice. This is happening today, just as the crisis of the earth reveals, with indisputable evidence, that we have only one destiny: "all in the same boat"-Pope Francis said during the pandemic.

"All in the same boat." Malian Lassana Bathily, a witness to the 2015 Paris terrorist events in the kosher supermarket, when self-proclaimed Muslims killed Jews and others, saved some Jews from the terrorists: "Yes, I helped the Jews," he said. We are all brothers. It is not a question of Jews, Christians and Muslims, we are all in the same boat." From the Malian immigrant to the pope of Rome, the consciousness of common destiny runs through religious worlds and people. 

In this consciousness are the resources for an alternative imagination that draws a vision of peace in the face of tired and resigned thoughts. Without alternative imagination, we remain prisoners of a hopeless present, destined to submit to the initiative of others or their bullying. Utopia? Dream? Imagination is a vision offered to all. In memory, we find elements and energy for a vision of peace. A realistic politics needs a broader vision in the light of which to move. Hope begins with the rejection of a predictable reading of the present, without looking beyond it. True realism needs this vision. You, Mr. President Mattarella, said recently in Assisi: "We do not surrender to the logic of war, which consumes reason and people's lives and drives intolerable crescendoes of death and devastation. That it is making the world poorer and risks setting it on the road to destruction."

All this, however, is not so obvious. The satiated cannot dream. The fearful fear dreams and visions. Satiety and fear push to multiply defenses, to securitize their spaces, to fortify identities, to arbitrary attacks, to tough talk, to endless wars. 

This situation pushes one to imagine visions of peace more boldly. A prophetic or poetic imagination, in short a vision, is precisely needed in a time squeezed between few alternatives. When minds and hearts are opened, avenues are born to answer the cry for peace. I would like to conclude with a poet, Muhammed Iqbal, called the "spiritual father of Pakistan," from a poem The Destiny of 1923:

"So dare to grow, dare! Not so narrow is the space!

O man of God! Is not the space of the kingdom of heaven narrow!"

No, space is larger than we think: reality is larger than the representations of the realists, the frightened, the aggressive.