In these months, Religions for Peace, originally called (World Conference for Religions and Peace) WCRP celebrates the 50th anniversary of its foundation. It is the occasion to look back and see the prophecy behind it and the one of its collaboration with Chiara Lubich and the Focolare Movement.
The (World Conference for Religions and Peace) WCRP, officially born in Istanbul in 1969, played a prophetic and pioneering role in the reality of interreligious dialogue. In fact, at the end of the 1960s little was still said and, above all, done about interreligious dialogue. Yet, somehow the God’s Spirit inspired people to be sensitive towards this ‘sign of the times’. And it wasn’t just Christians. In fact, at its inception and for a long time, the WCRP remained the only interreligious institution committed to the cause of peace.
The idea started a long time ago. Indeed, as early as 1962 Greeley, a Unitarian Universalist from Boston, and Rabbi Eisendrath of the Union of the American Hebrew Congregations felt the need for such a movement. In the process of maturing those first intuitions, Catholic and Methodist bishops gradually joined the project, followed by Anglicans and Orthodox. In 1966 in Washington D.C. an interreligious conference on peace was held, which then proposed to study the possibility of holding the same initiative worldwide. India and Japan immediately showed great interest in this possibility. In 1968 a delegation from the USA went to India and made a stop in Geneva for meetings at the Ecumenical Council of Churches, in Rome where they had contacts at the Holy See, in Istanbul for an involvement of the Orthodox Patriarchate and, finally, in Israel.
In New Delhi the group participated in a interfaith symposium which was held on the occasion of the centenary of Gandhi’s birth and then continued the journey for a day of interfaith consultation with the Japanese in Kyoto. From the two meetings it clearly emerged that the time was ripe to proceed towards organizing a world congress. During his travels to Japan, the delegation met also with Nikkyo Niwano, a Buddhist prophetic figure, founder of Rissho Kosei-kai who had dreamed for long time to start an interreligious collaboration in favour of peace. This desire was powerfully strengthened by his meeting with Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council. The pope, in fact, confirmed to Niwano that he was aware of what he was already doing and encouraged him to continue. Niwano at this point began a collaboration with Greeley putting all his efforts into starting the WCRP. At the preparatory committee meeting in Istanbul in 1969, Archbishop Fernandes of New Delhi was appointed president. He would have remained president of the WCRP until 1984. Pastor Homer Jack was chosen as secretary and he remained in office until 1983. Two prophets of both, peace and dialogue.
The first assembly of the WCRP took place in Kyoto in 1970. It was an almost absolute novelty to see representatives of the great world religions gathered for a new challenge: peace. Archbishop Camara of Brazil will say: “A miracle performed by the Lord”. In the II WCRP in Belgium, the participants from Asia expressed their desire to hold the conference also at the Asian level. The first Asian assembly in Singapore in 1976 then launched the project to save the Boat People of Vietnam, a real humanitarian tragedy in those years. Then followed the III WCRP in Princeton which witnessed a first time delegation from China, after a decade of invitations to that country’s religious leaders. The assembly included a seminar to strengthen the spiritual dimension of peace. The WCRP undertook projects in pursuit of a holistic concept of peace. It is a place for friendship oriented towards the action of people who work to promote all aspects of peace. And this by applying spiritual motivations.
At this point one might ask: who founded the WCRP? It was the collective commitment of seven religious leaders: a Buddhist, three Christians, a Hindu, a Jew and a Shintoist. It was a worldwide kaleidoscope, not only from the religions perspective but also from the geographical provenience: one German, two Indians, two Japanese and two from the USA.
And then the cooperation with the Focolare Movement came, ispired by a meeting in 1981 when Nikkyo Niwano invited Chiara Lubich to visit the Rissho Kosei-kai Center in Tokyo. On that occasion, he asked the Focolare to support the WCRP and she immediately ensured the cooperation of the Movement in those countries where the Conference chapter (offices) were present. In those years I lived in India and knew Archbishop Angelo Fernandes well as I had met him several times in my travels to Delhi. Chiara had consulted him before her decision. To those who had met him for his advice he had said: “You come as a sign from heaven”. In fact, archbishop Fernandes always felt the need for a spirituality to exist within the organization and, above all, he felt the urgency for the spirit of unity to enter into the organisation. Over the years, we have realized how the WCRP has proved to be a privileged meeting place.
Natalia Dallapiccola, Chiara’s first companion who since 1977 dealt with interreligious dialogue and often represented the Movement at the WCRP assemblies, has woven deep friendships with great personalities who then became partners in the common journey for universal fraternity. Among these we can include Ven. Etai Yamada, supreme head of the Tendai-shu in Japan; dr. Aram, founder of the Gandhian-inspired Shanti Ashram in India; imam W.D. Mohamed, leader of an African-American Muslim movement in the USA; Jewish personalities, and many others.
From 1989 in Melbourne until today the Movement has collaborated in different ways both for the organization of the General Assemblies of the WCRP – later renamed ‘Religions for Peace’ (RfP) – and for many other activities. In fact, for the assemblies in Melbourne in 1989, and in Rome and Riva del Garda in 1994, the welcome of the participants was entrusted to the Movement. The VI Assembly was held in the Vatican, in order to have John Paul II present, and then continued its proceedings in Riva del Garda. In those years, Chiara intervened at the assemblies with precious messages, always much appreciated precisely as an injection of spirituality. In 1984, in Nairobi, his message was defined “the magna charta of dialogue” and highly appreciated by all participants. Since 1994 she had been honorary president of the WCRP. It is the same now for Maria Voce. At the assembly in Amman in 1999, Chiara intervened by proposing the spirituality of unity of the Movement for living together.
Personally, I was able to participate in the General Assemblies in Amman in 1999 and in those in Vienna in 2013 and in Lindau in 2019. They were confirmations of the preciousness and prophecy of the role of RfP. At the same time, I realized the great danger we run within the Focolare Movement of losing sight of the prophecy of these agents of the Spirit – both the founders of the great institution and Chiara Lubich. Collaborating in these contexts means making history, walking together by reading the signs of the times and absence for rather futile reasons, always linked to a limited charismatic vision, is a defeat, which could be irreparable. In recent years I have seen young people engaged in dialogue working with RfP and become men and women of dialogue capable of interacting and making an impact wherever they are to build a lively and sustainable future. The hope is that the half-century of life of RfP will be a milestone for continuing a vital collaboration for both: the RfP, in fact, and the Focolare.