Pope condemns 'religious' violence
ASSISI, Italy -- The pope has condemned violence in the name of religion at a gathering of world religious leaders in Assisi.
More than 200 imams, patriarchs, rabbis, priests and cardinals had joined John Paul II for a daylong prayer for peace following the events of September 11.
Sitting on a cream-coloured throne, the 81-year-old pontiff told the audience that conflicts often arise because of "an unjustified association of religion with nationalistic, political and economic interests."
"It is essential therefore, that religious people and communities should in the clearest and most radical way repudiate violence," he said.
"There is no religious goal which can possibly justify the use of violence by man against man."
In a colourful display of turbans, caps and veils, religious leaders including Muslims, Christians and Jews answered the pope's invitation, issued following the September 11 attacks, to come to the pilgrimage town of Assisi for a daylong retreat.
They filled a tented arena that was decorated with a single olive tree, the symbol of peace.
Their retreat included an inaugural "testimony for peace" ceremony that was punctuated by Buddhist chants and Christian hymns, prayer sessions, lunch and a final communal pledge.
While many of the Christian participants echoed the pope's message that religion must never be used to justify violence, others focused on different themes, such as the need for dialogue among religions and of creating a more economically just world.
One of the Muslim representatives, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque and Islamic university, concluded his remarks by thanking the Vatican for its "honourable support of the Palestinian people."
Among the leaders attending the retreat was Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, the site of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
He called the event an attempt by the pope to bring various religious leaders together to "alert the world to the need to put an end to the conflict that is troubling us right now."
"Coming from New York, I am especially concerned," Egan told the Associated Press.
Asked about Italian press reports that the pope would like to visit "ground zero" of the World Trade Center while visiting North America in July -- he is not far scheduled to visit New York -- Egan replied "I'm sure they'll tell me sometime soon if it is true."
Assisi is the birthplace of St. Francis, the founder of the Roman Catholic Franciscan order, and the saint most closely associated with peace.
It was the third such prayer day organised by the pope during his 23-year pontificate.
The others -- also held in Assisi -- were a daylong fast and prayer against nuclear war in 1986 and a rally for Balkan peace in 1993.
John Paul travelled on what the Italian media dubbed the "train of prayers," bringing the religious leaders with him on a two-hour trip from the rarely used train station in the Vatican.
Authorities deployed some 1,000 police and helicopters along the route and to seal off the ancient town after John Paul arrived. Premier Silvio Berlusconi welcomed the pope at the Assisi train station.
Workmen put up a giant plastic tent in the square in front of the brilliantly frescoed Lower Basilica of St. Francis, where the main ceremony was held.
The Vatican expressed satisfaction over the turnout, although several leaders said they could not attend because of prior commitments, including the Dalai Lama, who was in Assisi in 1986.
Among those there was the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.
Islam was represented by 31 Muslims from 19 countries, including the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Among the Jews attending were Rabbi David Rosen of Jerusalem, President of the International Council of Christians and Jews.
John Paul last visited Assisi in January 1998, several months after a devastating earthquake wrecked much of the basilica. The church has been completely restored.
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