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World Religious Leaders Join Pope in a Peace Prayer

Italy: About 200 clerics gather to denounce violence and pledge tolerance. The event was organized as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks.


ASSISI, Italy — Leaders of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and the world's other major faiths joined Pope John Paul II here Thursday to pray for peace and condemn "every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or religion."

The solemn, daylong retreat--called by the pope to answer last year's terrorist attack on the United States and its aftermath--brought together about 200 leaders of 12 religions for what is believed to have been the most broadly representative encounter of its kind.

Huddled in a tented arena on a cold, drizzly day, the polyglot assembly of imams, patriarchs, monks, cardinals and rabbis lighted candles and found common ground against what the Roman Catholic pontiff called "the dark clouds of terrorism, hatred and armed conflict that . . . have grown particularly ominous on humanity's horizon."

Their 10-point communal pledge for peace avoided mention of the Sept. 11 attacks or the U.S. counterstrikes against Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network and Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

Instead, the clerics called for attacking the root causes of terrorism, siding with the poor and the helpless and urging leaders to create "a world of solidarity and peace based on justice."

The Vatican-drafted appeal, read one point at a time by a succession of clerics speaking different languages, committed the world's religions to preach mutual tolerance and address their differences through "frank and patient" dialogue. They pledged to forgive one another for "errors and prejudices" that have fueled violence and terrorism, which they called "incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion."

"Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again!" John Paul declared in a strong voice, reading the final section to the spirited applause of more than 2,000 spectators.

The 81-year-old pope met fellow clerics at the Vatican and rode with them on the 110-mile trip to this hill town aboard a special seven-car train provided by the Italian government. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met the train at Assisi and attended the gathering.

The Day of Prayer for World Peace took place outside the Basilica of St. Francis, the burial site of the 13th century Catholic pacifist. The event was bigger than two previous worldwide religious gatherings convened here by John Paul, who drew plaudits Thursday for pursuing interfaith understanding more actively than any papal predecessor.

"Only you, John Paul, could make this happen," said Rabbi Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, greeting the pope with a salute.

Along with about 50 Vatican and Catholic VIPs came an equal number of other Christian delegates. More than 100 non-Christians came--Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Shintoists, Confucianists, Zoroastrians, Jainists, African animists and leaders of the Tenrikyo faith-healing sect.

They flanked the white-clad pontiff on the arena's stage in an amazing array of robes and headgear that ranged from turbans and skullcaps to loose-fitting hoods.

Their speeches offered diverse inspirations for a common message. Didi Talwalkar, one of just two female speakers, cited her Hindu belief in the "divine essence" of every human being. Amadou Gasseto, high priest of the Avelekete Vodou animist faith, cited a "key law of nature" that peace brings abundant crops and multiplied herds.

"The question before us is: Where is our ultimate loyalty?" said Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. "How can we bear witness first and foremost to a God who loves the whole world, rather than to one who is bound to certain national, cultural or political allegiances?"

In 1986, John Paul convened a groundbreaking interfaith gathering here to protest the nuclear arms race and returned in 1993 to lead a similar appeal against ethnic bloodshed in the Balkans. Catholic conservatives accused him of "syncretism"--the blending of different religions, as if all were of equal value--but their criticism has faded.

As at those gatherings, the pope took pains Thursday to stress that religions were joining behind a goal but praying separately, respecting their differences. Separate prayer services took place at midday, after a round of speeches and before the peace pledge. Christians prayed together in the lower basilica, while non-Christian groups gathered in separate rooms of a convent from which crosses had been removed.

"It's a simple fact that other religions exist, and we have to take note of that," Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief theologian and a critic of the 1986 gathering, said on the train. He welcomed Thursday's meeting as "a strong signal for peace" but added, "I don't think we can expect a politically concrete result."

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