Pope John Paul II convened leaders of various religions in the medieval hill-town of Assisi, Italy, last Thursday to proclaim that religion must never be used to justify violence.

Some 200 imams, patriarchs, monks and rabbis from around the world answered the pontiff’s invitation, which was issued last November in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Associated Press.

“Whoever uses religion to foment violence contradicts religion’s deepest and truest inspiration,” said the pope, 81, as he addressed the gathering from a white throne, according to the New York Times. “Let us pray to the heavenly father, let us implore him as befits those who weep over the ruins, and who fear for what remains standing.”

Pope Paul mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks as he welcomed Cardinal Edward Egan of New York along with prelates from 12 other countries in conflict, including Algeria, Colombia, Rwanda, Spain and Pakistan.

The event brought together leaders of several Christian denominations, as well as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Shintoists. Some 2,000 dignitaries assembled in the square outside the Lower Basilica of St. Francis, according to RNS.

The pontiff, whose 24-year tenure is the longest in the 20th century, has visited Israel and major Muslim countries to promote mutual understanding. The pope visited Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, some close to Afghanistan, following the terrorist attacks in the United States.

During prayer and reflection last week, he also stressed the importance of his efforts to develop relationship between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Times reported.

The Russian Orthodox Church, amid its ongoing reluctance to support President Putin in welcoming the pope in Russia, was represented by a high-level delegation in Assisi, according to news agencies in Moscow.

After the assembly, the leaders separated to pray for peace. John Paul led Catholic clergy in the lower church of the basilica; Jewish leaders stood in prayer nearby as Muslims knelt on rugs on the stone pavement, according to the Times. The Zoroastrians lighted a bonfire in front of the basilica.

“Authentic Christianity teaches love for neighbor, whether friend or foe,” Robert Parham, BCE’s executive director wrote last November, addressing opposition by Southern Baptist and Lutheran fundamentalists to interfaith prayer meetings. “Loving neighbor includes respect and dialogue, even with those of different belief systems and values.”

Alex Smirnov is BCE’s research associate.

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