Over 3,000 people, from a wide variety of backgrounds and organisations, attended lectures and seminars conducted by Dr Claudio Betti, a founder of the Sant'Egidio Community, who was in Australia in February.
The Sant'Egidio Community, a lay Catholic association, was established in Rome in 1968. Its first members were a group of high school students who joined forces to pray and work together for the poor and marginalised.
From these humble beginnings, it has grown into an international lay movement, with some 40,000 members in all five continents. Apart from charitable works, Dr Betti and the Sant'Egidio Community have been involved in efforts to mediate on behalf of victims of civil war and other conflicts in such places as Lebanon (1982) and Mozambique (1989-92); to engage in inter- religious dialogue, including the International Meetings of People and Religions at Assisi; and to carry out rescue operations on behalf of Iraki refugees in 1986, and a Bosnian Muslim leader, Mr Ibrahim Rugova, freed from a Serb prison in 1999.
Dr Betti also spoke to a number of Australian political leaders on the humanitarian work of the Sant'Egidio Community, and gave a number of addresses, including talks to:
* students and teachers of Xavier College and St John's, Dandenong;
* the Thomas More Summer School, where he gave two inspirational talks to around 150 young people, on "Living the Beatitudes" and "Blessed are the Peacemakers - Transforming the World";
* the Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace and Catholic Social Services on "Making Peace in a Time of Conflict";
* the Catholic Pastoral Formation Centre, on "Peace in an Age of War". In his address, Dr Betti addressed the dangerous situation in Iraq, saying, "Only prayer can assist us for a miracle is needed to prevent this war from eventuating."
His presentation inspired Melbourne's Archbishop Hart to call for a novena to pray for peace, reflecting the urgency of the situation in Iraq, as well as having faith that for the Lord, nothing is impossible. The prayer reads as follows:
"Lord, we thank you for your gifts to us. We are threatened by the possibility of war and terrorism. Grant to the leaders of nations a readiness to work for a just and peaceful settlement to the tensions in the Middle East and especially in Iraq. Guide our minds and hearts to treat each other with dignity and respect as we work for peace in the world and in our country, Australia. Help us to value and conserve peace as a reality. We ask this through Christ, our Lord."
In his address to Victoria University's Europe-Australia Institute, Dr Betti spoke on "Christians and Muslims in Europe: how can they co- exist?".
In this paper, Dr Betti referred to the challenge presented to nations such as Italy, France and Germany by Muslim immigrants and refugees over the past thirty years, which has made Islam the fastest growing religion in Western Europe.
Pointing to predictions that the 20th century would see the end of religions and the triumph of secularism, he said these predictions have been proven false: "In reality, especially in the last decades of the 20th century, we have witnessed a 'revanche de Dieu', a revenge of God, as it has been acutely stated by the Islamologist Gilles Kepel", in which religion has re-emerged as the most powerful force, far stronger than the dying secular culture.
The challenge, he said, is not to reject the newcomers, but to make them welcome, being careful not to ignore divisions and not to erase differences.
The starting point for any dialogue, he said, is that "every religion, in fact, presents itself as a way to salvation and is thus substantially self-sufficient. Each religion does not give the idea of needing the other. On the contrary, in most cases religions tend to affirm their own identity in front of others."
Among the questions which must be addressed is the difficulty in finding Muslim interlocutors who can represent this world, due to the peculiar "lay" structure of Islam which is not hierarchical.
Another difficulty arises from Muslim perceptions of the West, a perception of Europe in the Islamic world as a secularised continent where Christians have given up proposing their faith's values in public life.
The religious world of Christianity is, for many Muslims who come to Europe, impassable, while their experience is that of living in extremely secularised cities.
For Christians, there is another difficulty: "Islam is complex and diversified (even if it is able to achieve a great level of cohesion) but it is not up to Christians to say what is the true Islam, the one they have to start a dialogue with. There is among Christians the search for the 'good' Muslim, for the one to talk to. Islam has many souls.
"We do not know, and surely I don't, which is the true one or even if there is only one. We do not know if the truest and most Muslim soul is the one that talks with Christians. To be Christians also means to stop with respect at the threshold of a religious world which is not our own, to look at it as a mystery, accepting it as a matter of fact, both historical and religious.
"Dialogue is self-restraint, aware of one's values but respectful of the other's. To know the culture, the theology of Islam does not entitle us to substitute our version of it.
"Dialogue, however, is today a necessity. The path of history leads to a mutual comprehension and collaboration", he said, particularly in the current environment, coloured by terrorism and war.