Pope Benedict XVI joined Jews, Buddhist monks, Islamic scholars, Yoruba leaders and a handful of agnostics in making a communal call for peace Thursday, insisting that religion must never be used as a pretext for war or terrorism. Benedict welcomed some 300 leaders representing a rainbow of faiths to the hilltop town of Assisi to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a daylong prayer for peace here called by Pope John Paul II in 1986 amid Cold War conflicts.
The World Jewish Congress was represented by Deputy Secretay General Maram Stern and by the Executive Director of World Jewish Congress North America, Betty Ehernberg.
Thursday's meeting also included Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and representatives from Greek, Russian, Serbian and Belarusian Orthodox churches as well as Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist leaders. Several rabbis were joined by some 60 Muslims, a half-dozen Hindus and Shinto believers, three Taoists, three Jains and a Zoroastrian.
Traditional Catholics condemned the meeting — just as they did in 1986 — saying it was blasphemy for the pope to invite leaders of "false" religions to pray to their Gods for peace. The Society of St. Pius X, a breakaway traditionalist group that Benedict has been working to bring back into Rome's fold, said it would be celebrating 1,000 Masses to atone for the damage done by the event and urged the pope to use it to urge others to convert to Catholicism.
Before becoming Pope, Benedict had boycotted the 1986 event, disapproving of members of different faiths praying in the presence of one another. His 25th anniversary edition stripped away all communal public prayer in an attempt to remove any whiff of syncretism, or the combining of different beliefs and practices.
In his remarks, the German-born Benedict noted that in the 25 years since the landmark peace day, the Berlin Wall had crumbled without bloodshed and the world was without any great new wars. But he said nations are still full of discord and that religion is now frequently being used to justify violence. "We know that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty that considers itself entitled to discard the rules of morality for the sake of the intended 'good,'" he said.
But the pope said it was wrong to demand that faith disappear from daily life to somehow rid the world of a religious pretext for violence. He argued that the absence of God from people's daily lives was even more dangerous, since it deprived men and women of any moral criteria to judge their actions. "The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God's absence," said Benedict, who as a young German was forced to join the Hitler Youth.