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By Katherine MARSHALL, The World Bank.

(MILAN - Italy)-The 2004 Sant'Egidio meeting opened under the shadow of the Breslan tragedy: the very first speaker was the Orthodox Bishop from the Ossetia Region (Feofan Azhurkov) who brought a vivid personal testimony of the unfolding events, with a passionate denunciation of terrorism as a weapon for any cause. It closed as a second shadow took shape, the kidnapping of two young Italian women, humanitarian workers in Iraq. The problems of HIV/AIDS and the threats to Africa were at the center of much discussion. The dangers of our world today were close and vivid.

Yet this 18th annual gathering bringing leaders, above all from the great world religions, together for prayer and dialogue emerged not only with a passionate appeal to work together for peace but also with a sense of hope and strong voices of confidence and conviction about the path ahead. This was the product both of the people gathered there, remarkable leaders and thinkers who contributed their individual and collective will, and of the spirit that surrounds this unique event and its organizers, the Community of Sant'Egidio.

The announcement came at the final ceremony that the Community had been awarded the prestigious Barzan Foundation Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood. And the organization of the meeting, its roots, the care for participants, and the symbolism and verve of the final ceremony to appeal for peace, all contributed to the final spirit of hope.

The Community of Sant'Egidio has taken responsibility for organizing an annual meeting that follows the meeting in Assisi in 1986 convened by Pope John Paul II, then and since termed a pilgrimage and prayer for peace. Each year a large meeting is held, to date always in a European city, but with a worldwide focus and participation of representatives from the great world religions. It is a unique event, widely admired, that draws a remarkable group of religious leaders, essentially from the mainstream, with predominance of the three monotheistic religions - the Catholic Church, many Protestant representatives, many senior figures in the Orthodox world, Islamic leaders from several parts of the Islamic world, and respected Jewish leaders. Many very respected and senior leaders from other major world religions also participate (some 250 religious leaders this year). The meeting also brings political leaders (prominent this year were President Wade of Senegal, Frano Frattini, Foreign Minister of Italy, and Romano Prodi, EC President). Many leading intellectual leaders also participate.

The meeting takes a common form each year, with a powerful opening ceremony, almost two days of demanding panel discussions with leading thinkers and religious leaders, and a final ceremony that reflects the symbolism of the approach: each faith community worships together to represent the respect for individual identity (this is not about syncretism or conversion in any way), then they process through the city joining other faith groups with crowds cheering, and convene on a stage for the final ceremony and prayer (at Milan's Duomo this year).

This ceremony involves final speeches (the Cardinal of Milan, a lengthy message from Pope John Paul II read by Cardinal Kasper, Andrea RIccardi - founder of Sant'Egidio, and a young witness from Rwanda), the reading of the Appeal for Peace, and presentation to the diplomats and leaders present, and then a lighting of.candles by each leader.

The meeting each year draws large crowds from the region where it is held, and many from the Sant'Egidio community, many of them young and palpably hopeful. Somet 9,000-10,000 people attended the major events in Milan. This year, the meeting was also transmitted by web, reaching, some said, at least 10,000 more. The press covers the meeting actively - mostly in Italy but also well beyond - Andrea Riccardi's opening speech appeared yesterday on the editorial page of Le Monde. The Sant'Egidio website has full coverage including speeches, pictures, webcast, and press digest.

The Annual Prayer for Peace is organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a lay Catholic community perhaps best characterized as a movement, with a presence in some 80 countries and about 40,000 members. It brings extraordinary resources to the event, above all some 2000 volunteers. Each invited guest has an escort (termed by Anastasios, Archbishop of Albania, our "guardian angels").
The meeting works like clockwork, meticulously organized in execution, brilliantly orchestrated and with a flare for symbolism and style that is remarkable.

The meeting moves from city to city, to date in Europe. Last year, it Was in Aachen, Germany, before that in Palermo. The meeting will be in Lyon in September 2005. There is talk of organizing a meeting in the United States, perhaps as early as 2006, though this is by no means certain. There is also talk of holding a meeting in Africa. Sant'Egidio began with a mission to fight poverty, working with the poorest and most marginalized communities in each country where they have a community, and has been drawn into the role of peacemaker in many parts of the world.

They were major players in the 1992 Mozambique Peace Agreement, signed in their headquarters, and are active in mediation and negotiation today on several continents. Their presence in Africa is most active and they see the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a calamity on the scale of war. The Community takes great pride in their DREAM program, the program in Mozambique to care for people with HIV/AIDS, which is pioneering treatment and is a core partner in the World Bank supported Treatment Acceleration Project (approved by the Executive Directors in July 2004). They present the priority of action on HIV/AIDS as a basic human right, and are in relation with health ministers in some 16 countries as advocates for the issue, as well as with many public and private international and national institutions.

They are working now across many African countries to launch new "DREAM" programs (Malawi, Tanzania, Guinea Bissau in the first instance).
President Wade gave a keynote address at the opening session. He made a passionate plea to focus on Africa, and highlighted the practical and broad-ranging importance of the dialogue across civilizations which lies at the core of the message of Sant'Egidio. He stressed also the linkages that tie global problems one to another, and the need for new and stronger partnerships - to combat HIV/AIDS, to bring peace, and to build a better, more equitable, and
diverse world for tomorrow.