BOLOGNA, Italy — At a 775-year-old Italian palace and neighboring historic hotel here over the weekend, a Latter-day Saint apostle met with Catholicism’s Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, Islam’s Grand Mufti of the Caucasus and Sudan’s minister of religious affairs, who took office after a revolution.
Remarkable connections illustrate the growing impact of the annual G20 Interfaith Forum, which began Sunday with a message from Pope Francis and ringing speeches by Slovenia’s president, Sri Lanka’s prime minister and the president of the World Jewish Congress, among others.
It is among the reasons for four consecutive years, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, has sent an apostle to speak and participate in the Interfaith Forum, which champions partnerships between religion and government and seeks to influence the annual Group of 20 meeting by showing the strength global religious leaders bring to solving society’s biggest problems. This year’s G20 Heads of State and Government Summit is scheduled for the end of October in Rome.
“This is the first time in my 21 years of serving as a general authority that my entire focus for 11 days is on government relations and interfaith relations,” said Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Sunday’s speakers immediately focused on this year’s theme for the forum, “Time to heal: Peace among cultures, understanding between religions,” noting that it also referred to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elder Rasband will deliver remarks on religious freedom on Monday. He represents the Church of Jesus Christ at the G20 Interfaith Forum at a time when its size and influence are growing.
This week’s conference, which runs through Tuesday, includes government and religious leaders and scholars from 70 nations. Forum officials planned to limit the meetings to 370 participants because of COVID-19, but more than 700 people cleared the hurdles of pandemic-era international travel to join.
Pope Francis commended the forum for bringing together religious authorities and political leaders to “engage in dialogue so as to promote access to fundamental rights, above all religious freedom, and to cultivate the leaven of unity and reconciliation where war and hatred have sown death and lies.”
“God is not the God of war but of peace,” he added in his message, which was read aloud during Sunday’s opening ceremony in a long, echoing, fresco-lined hall on the top floor of the Palazzo Re Enzo, a palace completed in the heart of Medieval Bologna in 1246.
Elder Rasband began meeting international delegations on Saturday with Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy, and Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency and president of Latter-day Saint Charities.
His first meeting was with Haji Allahshükür Hummat Pashazade, the Sheikh ul-Islam and Grand Mufti of the Caucasus, who invited Elder Rasband to visit Azerbaijan and meet its president and religious leaders. Elder Rasband issued an invitation for the Grand Mufti to visit Salt Lake City.
“One of the purposes of our assignments was achieved in what was the first meeting for both of our delegations at the G20 Interfaith Forum,” Elder Rasband said. “We want to make new friends. I loved giving him an embossed copy of the Book of Mormon. It’s the same leather-bound book that President Russell M. Nelson gives to leaders of governments when he is on trips or when they come to visit him in Salt Lake City. He received it with great dignity and said it would become a part of his personal collection.”
Azerbaijan is 96% Muslim. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has sponsored humanitarian projects there and has a handful of members living there.
On Sunday, the church delegation held meetings with leaders from the Sudan and Ethiopia at a hotel. Before the opening sessions of the forum at the brick, medieval palace, Elder Rasband met with Bishop Robert Jarjis, the Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad, among others.
“I was greatly inspired by this church and its principles,” His Honorable Nasr-Eddin Mofarah, said about the Latter-day Saints after meeting Elder Rasband. “So I studied them. I honestly find many similarities between Islam and the Latter-day Saints.”
Mofarah was installed as Sudan’s minister of religious affairs two years ago after a revolution and has supported religious pluralism. He previously visited Latter-day Saint headquarters and met with President Nelson. He noted that the Sudanese government and the Latter-day Saints are engaged in joint humanitarian projects in his country, providing kidney dialysis centers, neonatal care training and self-reliance projects.
Elder Rasband also met with Tiguhan Tagay Tadele, Secretary General of the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia, and the deputy secretary, Messaud Adem.
The meetings were evidence that the forum is, as was said by Benedetto Della Vedova, Italy’s Undersecretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, “a growing conference that is the leading platform for dialogue between civil and religious leaders.”
Italian President Sergio Mattarella also sent a message that was read to the forum assembly, saying that attention to the spiritual dimension of life is an important part of what he called the growing presence of religious leaders in global political conversations.
Slovenian President Borut Pahor echoed that observation.
“The G20 Interfaith Forum has established itself as one of the key platforms for dialogue within and between religious communities, as well as between representatives of religious and political circles,” Pahor said.
He called for inclusive dialogue to combat the spread of hate speech, saying he firmly believed most people remain moderate and tolerant toward each other. He also said open dialogue and daily, constructive coexistence strengthen social cohesion and inclusion.
“In the context of this conference, I find it particularly worth emphasizing the benefit of dialogue between religions and between church and state,” Pahor said. “The constitutional principle of the separation of church and state does not prohibit constructive dialogue between the political institutions of the state and ecclesiastical authorities. I believe that, particularly in the current situation, such a dialogue is of utmost importance.”
The opening ceremony at the former palace took place less than a mile from the University of Bologna, the world’s oldest continuously operating university.
Pope Francis and the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, referred to that proximity while calling for increased education about religious beliefs and morals.
“We must also help each other, all together, to combat the religious illiteracy that permeates all cultures,” Pope Francis said in his message. “It is a widespread ignorance that reduces the experience of belief to rudimentary dimensions of the human and seduces vulnerable souls into adhering to fundamentalist slogans. Above all, we need to educate ...”
Lauder called for a global re-emphasis on religious schools.
“This is as important as climate change and clean water projects,” he said. “We need to teach our young children tolerance toward all.”
That was not the only call to action. The goal of the Interfaith Forum is to make suggestions to policy makers at the G20 and beyond. This week’s forum will discuss issues related to justice, refugees, human trafficking, modern slavery, poverty, peace and gender equality.
“We have contributed to an understanding that religious actors have an extraordinary role to play in the formation of policy,” Cole Durham, a BYU law professor and president of the G20 Interfaith Forum Association, told the forum on Sunday.
For the Latter-day Saint delegation, the forum is just the start of their efforts in Europe this week.
Sister Eubank will speak at an Interfaith Forum session Tuesday about religious commitments to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Then the delegation will travel to centers of the European Union and United Nations.
“Elder Jack N. Gerard and I have assignments from the First Presidency and the Twelve relative to communications and government affairs relationships throughout the whole world,” Elder Rasband said of the trip. “While here in Europe, we are expanding our trip to visit our church office in Brussels, Belgium, that works with the European Union, and then to Geneva, Switzerland, for work with the United Nations.
“This is a very special trip ... in that we can be very specific in our orientation, to work on building relationships, visiting with government and interfaith leaders, and our own wonderful staff and employees that carry out these functions for us, including senior missionaries. So this is a very dedicated trip and one that we hope builds many more relationships, like what we experienced in our first one (Saturday with the Sheikh).”