Only Dialogue Can Change the World

"There are many spiritually empty workplaces in the world, and religions are called on to fill these workplaces with a new spirit of humanity. This is very important. A man once said, "Peace is too important to be left in the hands of politicians." We, as the Community of Sant'Egidio, know we are very open to cooperation with everyone."

An interview with Alberto Quattrucci, Secretary General, International Meetings Peoples and Religions - Community of Sant’Egidio, published at Dharma World, January-March 2012.

You will visit the areas afflicted by earthquake and tsunami this weekend. With your experience as one of the leaders of Sant'Egidio's peace activities, what do you think you should do first?

In my work for the Community of Sant'Egidio in 2006 and 2007, I helped the victims of the tsunami in India and other parts of South Asia, which was caused by a massive earthquake in Indonesia on December 26, 2004. I made seven trips after March 2005 to the southern area of Tamil Nadu affected by the tsunami. It was very surprising that the day after the earthquake, on December 27, our community's office in Rome received a lot of phone calls from all parts of Italy, and some from other parts of Europe as well. People who wanted to help India or Sri Lanka said things like: "Can we do something to help the situation?" "We'll donate one thousand euros." "We'd like to donate money through you because we trust you and because we know that if you receive our money, you will spend all of it on the poor." We were surprised by this show of trust as well as by the show of warm solidarity. Within a month we collected one and a half million euros from throughout Italy. We used the money to build sixteen primary schools in the affected areas. One primary school in the Tamil Nadu area accommodated twelve hundred children. We gave nets to fishermen. We rebuilt some hospitals, and so on.

This year, over a period of a week to ten days, the world learned from media reports what had happened in Japan. But no one called us to say, "We would like to help." I asked myself why. One possible answer was the difference in location. India and other South Asian countries are very poor, but Japan is "rich," according to public opinion.

That's a possible answer, but I don't think it is the most important answer. The first case was in 2004, and the second was in 2011. The sense of common solidarity has given way to individualism. Now we live in a time of economic crisis, and spiritual crisis as well. People feel they have to take care of themselves before they take care of others. All over the world, even in the so-called rich countries, there is poverty. If you are hit by an earthquake or tsunami, even if you were rich, now you are poor.

Because of this we decided to do something for Japan. First, because Japan has been our good friend for a long time. We feel very close to Japan and are well informed about its situation, so we would like to do something. Confronted with the sufferings of people in northeastern Japan affected by the tsunami, we thought we should do something together as religionists to relieve them. We had to bring them joy and hope for the future.

I would like to meet the mayor of Rikuzentakata. I learned just last night through one of my friends that he lost his wife in the tsunami. We would like to discover through him the situation in this city. Fifty thousand people are homeless, and so on. I heard that most of them are elderly people. I would like to interview some of the people. My first objective is to study the situation, take pictures, and then talk with people, mostly the elderly who remained alone, to gather information so that we can launch a campaign in Italy and in Japan to collect donations for aid, and to accomplish something good, modest perhaps, but also very significant, as a sign of friendship or solidarity.

This is very important, because this is the special role of religions. Only religions in today's world have a long-term vision for the future of the world. This is a very important gift, but at the same time, this is a very important responsibility of religions, to play this role within society, not outside it, at two levels: those of concrete daily life and of spirituality. We follow our own religion in the daily life of our communities, but we also have to involve ourselves with people of other religions to give people joyful hope for the future.

At the same time, we'd like to promote some forums, that is, some time for discussion and dialogue, because only through dialogue can we find solutions. Solutions can be found through discussion, cooperation, and solidarity with other people.

The Community of Sant'Egidio has been called "the United Nations of the Trastevere," referring to the district in Rome where the community has its headquarters. This is because Sant'Egidio's work for world peace centers on cooperating with everyone, including members of different faith communities as well as secular people. Please tell us the significance of being open to everyone.

In general, I firmly believe that people of faith, especially in Buddhist regions such as Japan and Asia in general, have an important role. Its importance has increased in the last more or less twenty years since the failure of the world ideologies. The world ideologies had a vision for the future; right or wrong, good or bad, but they had a vision. Now, no one has a vision. The only vision is consumerism, in which people seek only daily success, very brief and short-term success, without thought of the future.

Religions have strong energy because they are not interested in consumerism and money, nor are they interested in concrete gains. They are interested in humanity. People of faith are the artists of humanity.

There are many spiritually empty workplaces in the world, and religions are called on to fill these workplaces with a new spirit of humanity. This is very important. A man once said, "Peace is too important to be left in the hands of politicians." We, as the Community of Sant'Egidio, know we are very open to cooperation with everyone. With you, of course, Rissho Kosei-kai, and other people, we feel that we are more than friends. But we also seek to cooperate with the people not so well known. We can cooperate with everyone, including politicians.

Italian politicians have often asked why Sant'Egidio did not choose to become a political party. For instance, they twice invited Andrea Riccardi, the founder, to become a politician. He said, "It's very important to politically lead the country, but I prefer to do what I do because I believe that we can change the world as people of faith, through the work of Sant'Egidio. We can cooperate with politicians and we can cooperate with everyone, to be very frank with you." We have cooperated with everyone, with the right wing, with the left wing, but always maintaining our spiritual identity and autonomy as Community of Sant'Egidio.

Would you tell us something about Sant'Egidio's plans for the future, especially in terms of interreligious cooperation?

We work on many different levels. One is the level of tradition, which includes the annual international meetings for peace and other international gatherings. This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986, and the International Meeting will be held in Munich (Germany). Next year (2012) the Inter-religious Gathering will be in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina).

One of the activities of the Community of Sant'Egidio all over the world is work with children. Hundreds of thousands of poor children all over the world gather at so-called Schools of Peace - in Africa, South America, Central America, and Europe. In the Third World, we have about 4,500 Schools of Peace. In many cases they are very simple facilities. They are places where hundreds of children gather three to four times a week to study together. They also learn about peace, solidarity, and values of life. Most of them are abandoned or living with their families in difficulty. Some of them have no official existence because they are undocumented. Every year fifty-one million children worldwide are not registered. We have a program called BRAVO in which we have registered - up to now - 900,000 children: if children are not registered, they can easily be exploited. They can be sold. They can be used as child soldiers.

In Indonesia our schools welcome Christian and Muslim children together. This is a good sign. Muslims know this very well, and they appreciate it very much because they know that although we are devout Christians and they are devout Muslims, we are all children of God, and we can cooperate. This is concrete interreligious dialogue for peace - working together for the sake of children and future generations. In Indonesia we are also working with Muslims and other people of faith to build houses for the elderly. We can also work in this way to change society and give a very clear example of how to go about it.

We are working a lot now in North Africa, on the occasion of the so-called "Arab spring." We've sent some missions to Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries. We also met Libyan representatives, and we built a bridge between the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and these Libyan representatives to study future possibilities. We are free as the Community of Sant'Egidio. We are not linked to any political party. We can build bridges with all parties. Various officials of the Italian Foreign Ministry asked us to help them in this field.

At another level of interreligious cooperation, throughout southern Africa we are promoting projects against HIV/AIDS. We've been cooperating with people of other faiths in ten southern African countries for some twelve years. When we begin cooperation at the interreligious level, we don't try to exclude political representatives. We work together. If we seek to change the situation in a country, we have to involve all the energies, all the parts of the country, not only people of religion but also lay people - all the people who can act in some sense to influence the course of events in the country.

There is one kind of interreligious dialogue and cooperation that I respect very much. I am now participating, for instance, in talks about the UN Decade for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace. I remember its launch in 2006 and I also participated in the planning committee for the Decade's establishment in Geneva in 2006. But these things are intellectual, not concrete. They're very good, but they're not everything. We also need daily dialogue. Dialogue can change the world. We also have to include all the energies but without confusion or syncretism.

We need to make this new decade a peaceful one, especially since the first decade of this century was very sad. It was a decade of conflicts and wars. After 9/11, many people claimed, "Dialogue is useless," "We need war," "We need conflict to change the world." But this has failed. Now, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we must open a new decade in which we will choose dialogue as the only path to world peace.