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Pope's Assisi prayers for peace

The pope welcomed 200 religious leaders to the daylong prayer for peace
The pope welcomed 200 religious leaders to the daylong prayer for peace  

ASSISI, Italy -- Religious leaders from around the world have joined Pope John Paul II for a daylong prayer for peace following the events of September 11.

Concerned by the impact of the U.S. terrorist attacks, the pope invited representatives of world religions -- particularly Christians and Muslims -- on Thursday to the hillside town of Assisi to meditate and speak out about the need for an end to war and terrorism.

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 81-year-old pope during his 23-year pontificate, designed to reinforce the message that conflict, murder and violence should never be carried out in the name of God.

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.

The ceremony was a "pilgrimage of hope" for participants "following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, a prophet and witness of peace," the pope said on Wednesday in his weekly general audience.

Representatives of 12 religions -- including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists and followers of tribal religions -- took part.

CNN's Alessio Vinci said that after a welcome by the pope the representatives read in their own languages a "testimony for peace" saying that prayer should be the way of promoting an end to violence.

Other activities included an address by the pope, prayer sessions, lunch and a final communal pledge that religion should never be used to justify violence, hatred or conflict.

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.

The message reflected the pontiff's address for World Peace Day earlier this month: "The various Christian confessions, as well as the world's great religions, need to work together to eliminate the social and cultural causes of terrorism. They can do this by teaching the greatness and dignity of the human person, and by spreading a clearer sense of the oneness of the human family.

"In particular, I am convinced that Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious leaders must now take the lead in publicly condemning terrorism and in denying terrorists any form of religious or moral legitimacy."

Italian media said 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.

Franciscan monks took down crosses from the walls and removed other religious objects from rooms in a U-shaped convent near St. Francis' tomb, where a number of the various religious guests will pray. As in the previous meetings, it was decided that followers of the various religions would pray separately.

The Vatican expressed satisfaction over the announced 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 who accepted 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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