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Following in Footsteps of Nature-loving Saint

September 25, 1986

ASSISI, Italy (AP) _ Following in the footsteps of St. Francis, hundreds of conservationists from around the world started marching through the countryside toward this tranquil medieval town Wednesday.

By coming to Assisi, where the nature-loving saint lived more than 600 years ago, they hope to draw attention to the conservation efforts of the World Wildlife Federation. The federation is celebrating its 25th anniversary here this weekend with the pilgrimage, a two-day summit and a religious retreat culminating in a day of inter-faith prayer.

The idea, conceived by Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, who heads the Switzerland-based World Wildlife Federation, is to combine religious and secular forces in spreading the gospel of clear skies and waters.

According to the Rev. Max Mizzi, a Franciscan friar who’s helping arrange the affair, the federation realized that tapping the religious network would reach hundreds of millions of people who never are touched by mass media.

″Prince Philip was considering what to do about the anniversary,″ Mizzi said. ″He wanted something more than just another convention. He called us. After all this is the city of St. Francis, the saint of ecology.″

Mizzi, a veteran of many Franciscan-supported peace marches, suggested the pilgrimage, which he describes as ″a potent symbol of reconciliation between man and nature.″

Four staggered marches, ranging between 17 and 79 miles, will pass through Gubbio, where Francis is said to have tamed a wolf, and end here on the foothills of Mount Subasio, where the 13th-century saint preached to birds, crickets and other animals.

Some of the participants have already walked from as far away as the Arctic Circle, according to officials of the World Wildlife Federation officials say.

As the marchers head for Assisi, up to 700 educators, ecologists, businessmen and politicians will be gathering here for a weekend conference aimed at launching the federation’s new campaign to alert people to their power to destroy or protect natural resources.

On Monday, after emerging from two days of retreat, prominent figures from five major religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism - will lead a service dedicated to harmony between man and nature, and to peace among men.

More than 1,000 people are expected for the ceremony under the gilded, vaulted ceiling of the St. Francis Basilica, which stands over the tomb of the saint.

The event is a prelude to another multi-faith gathering next month, organized by Pope John Paul II, to pray for peace.

The Rev. Leonard Testa says the message of St. Francis - that man depends on nature and must safeguard it - transcends social, religious and political divisions.

″St. Francis wasn’t some simpleton that went around talking to animals,″ Testa said. ″Animals felt this harmony, of the man with his natural surroundings, within Francis and were drawn to him.″

He pointed to the doorway of the basilica, at two gently hued frescoes attributed to Giotto. One shows Francis talking to a flock of birds; the other depicts a miracle in which the saint charms water from barren rock.

″As we leave, he’s telling us: ’Look after the water so it won’t be polluted, and look after nature,‴ Testa said.

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