SYDNEY, Australia (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI on Friday urged religious leaders of all kinds to unite against those who use faith to divide communities, an apparent reference to terrorism in the name of religion.
“In a world threatened by sinister and indiscriminate forms of violence, the unified voice of religious people urges nations and communities to resolve conflicts through peaceful means and with full regard for human dignity,” Benedict told a gathering of clerics from different faiths in Sydney. He met with representatives of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths during the Roman Catholic Church’s youth festival, which has drawn hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Sydney.
Without mentioning terrorism directly, the pontiff said creating harmony between religion and public life is “all the more important at a time when some people have come to consider religion as a cause of division rather than a force for unity.”
The remarks come as the Vatican tries to repair ties with the Islamic world that were strained when he gave a speech in 2006 that appeared to associate Islam with violence, outraging many Muslims.
Signs of lingering prickliness were evident Friday in the words of Sheikh Mohamadu Saleem of the National Imam’s Council of Australia, who said at the meeting that Muslims should be more understanding of other religions. “At the same time, a significant amount of the Christian groups and other religions must overcome their prejudice to Muslims and Islam,” he added.
The pope met separately with leaders of different Christian denominations, and said they, too, must work more closely together to make sure their beliefs stay a core part of society. On his way to Australia, the pope described the church in the West as in “crisis” because people feel they have no need for God.
“I think you would agree that the ecumenical movement has reached a critical juncture,” the pope said. “We must guard against any temptation to view doctrine as divisive and hence an impediment to the seemingly more pressing and immediate task of improving the world in which we live.”
In a park across the street from St. Mary’s Cathedral, where the pontiff is staying and where he held his Friday meetings, a handful of protesters against the church’s handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal waved placards that read “Hands off our kids” and “Clergy sexual abuse turns Christianity upside down.”
In his remarks to the interfaith group, Benedict stressed that religion was a “fundamental right” of all people that could not be contained by geography, an apparent reference to efforts by countries such as China to control some forms of religion. The pope did not directly mention China.
The Vatican is trying to re-engage with China, whose Communist leaders cut ties with the church in 1951. Beijing objects to the Vatican’s tradition of having the pope name his own bishops, calling it interference in China’s affairs.
China appoints bishops for the state-sanctioned Catholic church, but many of the country’s estimated 12 million Catholics worship in congregations outside the state-approved church. Benedict is eager for the Holy See to re-establish diplomatic ties with China to better protect his flock there.
The 81-year-old pontiff had only a slightly less hectic schedule Friday than the previous day. He met with Australian officials and had lunch with a group of young pilgrims, then watched a live recreation of The Last Supper, Christ’s crucifixion and other events in the last days of Jesus known as the stations of the cross.
The recreation, including bloody scenes of an actor playing Christ being dangled upside down by Roman soldiers and dragging a huge cross, was played out over three hours across sites in the city including the Sydney Opera House and a barge on the harbor. Pilgrims at the crucifixion scene wept openly, as did the actor playing Jesus.
On Thursday, the pontiff gave his first major speech before an estimated crowd of 200,000 people gathered for World Youth Day. Tens of thousands more lined Sydney harbor’s foreshore as he toured the city, first by boat and then in the popemobile.
In his address, Benedict warned that mankind’s “insatiable consumption” has scarred the Earth and squandered its resources, telling followers that taking care of the planet is vital to humanity, striking a theme that has earned him a reputation as the “green pope.”