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Pope Benedict XVI Leads Interfaith Gathering in Assisi

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ASSISI, Italy (CNS) -- Taking 300 religious leaders with him on pilgrimage to Assisi, Pope Benedict XVI said people who are suspicious of religion cannot be blamed for questioning God's existence when they see believers use religion to justify violence.

"All their struggling and questioning is, in part, an appeal to believers to purify their faith so that God, the true God, becomes accessible," the Pope said Oct. 27 during an interfaith gathering in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.

Marking the 25th anniversary of the first Assisi interfaith gathering for peace, hosted by Blessed John Paul II in 1986, Pope Benedict brought together the religious leaders and -- for the first time -- four philosophers who describe themselves as humanists or seekers who do not identify with any single religion.

The Pope condemned the use of religion to excuse violence and the use of violence to impose a religion, as well as the growing violence resulting from "the loss of humanity" that comes from denying the existence of God and of objective moral standards.

"As a Christian, I want to say at this point: Yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame," Pope Benedict said.

Christian leaders, like all religious leaders, he said, must work constantly to help their followers purify their faith and be "an instrument of God's peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans."

But a lack of religion is not the answer to world peace, he said.

The Nazi death camps clearly proved that "the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria (for judging right and wrong) and leads him to violence," the Pope said.

On the other hand, he said, many nonbelievers also are "pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace."

"These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practiced. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God," he said.

Eleven of the Pope's guests spoke before Pope Benedict did and, after the morning session, the Pope invited the delegates to a "frugal lunch" of rice and vegetables, salad, fruit and juice. Patriarch Bartholomew sat on one side of the Pope, while Archbishop Williams sat on the other. Thirteen other delegates -- including Christians, a Muslim, a follower of Tenrikyo, a Buddhist and a nonbeliever -- also were seated at the head table.

In the afternoon, following thousands of young people who walked up to the Basilica of St. Francis, the religious leaders rode up the hill in buses. Gathered in the square in front of the church's lower level, the Pope and 13 other leaders renewed their commitments to peace as the fog finally lifted from the plain below.

The leaders affirmed the obligation of love of neighbor, the conviction that true faith never can be used to justify violence, the responsibility religious leaders have to educate their followers to respect others and the need to continue interreligious dialogue.

Pope Benedict was the last to read his commitment. He said: "Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life, love!"

After a moment of silence, the Pope and other leaders were handed oil lamps similar to the one that burns before the tomb of St. Francis, just a few steps behind the stage. The event ended with the delegates exchanging a sign of peace and Pope Benedict exchanging big smiles with the crowd.

Before leaving, the pope told the leaders, "We will continue to meet" and to "be united in this journey of dialogue" for the good of the world.

Above: Representatives of other religions gather around Pope Benedict XVI as he prays at the tomb of St. Francis in the crypt of the basilica that bears his name in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 27. Pictured second from left, kneeling in front, is Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury. Third from right, standing, is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. (CNS photo)

Below: Pope Benedict XVI leads an interfaith peace meeting in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 27. Pictured, from left, are: Archbishop Norvan Zakarian of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Pope Benedict, Rabbi David Rosen, representing the chief rabbinate of Israel; Wande Abimbola, president of a Nigerian institute that promotes the study of the culture and traditional religion of the Yoruba people; and Shrivatsa Goswami, a Hindu delegate. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)