Pope Benedict XVI presided over his first inter-religious gathering Thursday in the Umbrian hilltop town of Assisi. But unlike the meeting called by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, 25 years ago, there were no common prayers with Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.
Pope Benedict welcomed some 300 leaders representing a rainbow of faiths to Assisi, Italy, the birthplace of Saint Francis, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a day-long prayer for peace called by Pope John Paul II in 1986 amid Cold War conflicts.
Leading the global interfaith meeting, the pope acknowledged that Christianity has in the past used force, but he said violence in God’s name has no place in today’s world.
Addressing religious representatives in a basilica in Assisi, the pope said that it is true that in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. He added that "We acknowledge this with great shame." He also said this was clearly an abuse of the Christian faith, one that contradicts its true nature.
Thursday’s meeting included some novelties that the original lacked. Buddhist monks from mainland China were on hand, as were four people who profess no faith at all - part of Benedict’s efforts to reach out to agnostics and atheists.
Also present was the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and representatives of Greek, Russian, Serbian and Belorussian Orthodox churches. Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist leaders were also in attendance, joined by 60 Muslims and several rabbis.
The German-born Benedict noted that in the quarter-century since his predecessor’s peace meeting in Assisi, the Berlin Wall had crumbled without bloodshed and the world was without any great new wars. But the pontiff said nations are still full of discord and that religion is now frequently being used to justify violence.
The pope said it is known that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that the religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for such reckless cruelty. He said terrorists consider themselves entitled to discard the rules of morality for the sake of what they perceive as the intended good.
Pope Benedict spoke of the need for God to be present in people’s lives. He said that the horrors of concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence.
The Assisi gathering did not include common prayers among the delegates. Pope Benedict disapproves of members of different faiths praying in the presence of one another. And so the 300 participants were given time to pray silently in individual rooms.
The delegates all traveled together to Assisi on a special papal train that left early Thursday from the Vatican’s train station. They return to Rome Thursday evening for a special audience with Benedict inside the Vatican on Friday.