WASHINGTON – Religious leaders from a broad swath of worldwide faiths met Wednesday at Georgetown University for an annual interfaith forum being held in the United States for the first time.
The two-day International Prayer for Peace is the largest regular interfaith gathering in the world, with an expected 100 speakers from many religions, including Roman Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Mennonites, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Shintoists. Charity groups, academics, journalists and diplomats will also take part.
Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick welcomed the crowd of 500 and called the interfaith summit the dream of Pope John Paul II, who started the meetings 20 years ago.
"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," McCarrick said.
While the meeting's goal 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 include the role of religion in combatting AIDS, poverty and genocide, and in resolving conflicts between faiths. Religiously motivated terrorism also is a central theme.
Karen Hughes, the U.S. undersecretary of state tasked with improving the nation's image in Islamic countries and elsewhere, said faith has been misused for political ends by terrorist groups. But she also said religion could help erode support for terrorism.
"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 the 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.
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.