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Buddhists, Muslims, Yoruba join pope for peace pilgrimmage; traditional Catholics condemn it
ASSISI, Italy (AP) ' Buddhist monks, Muslim imams, Yoruba leaders and a handful of agnostics traveled with Pope Benedict XVI to the Umbrian hilltown of Assisi on Thursday to make a communal call for peace and insist that religion must not be used as a pretext for war.
The event was designed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a daylong prayer for peace called by Pope John Paul II in 1986 amid Cold War conflicts in dozens of countries. Some 300 delegates representing a rainbow of faiths answered Benedict's invitation, though the event lacked the star power of 1986 when the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Native American chiefs and others came together to pray.
Traditional Catholics condemned the meeting 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 which 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 the occasion to urge others to convert to Catholicism.
The pope did no such thing. But Benedict too objected to the 1986 event and didn't go, 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.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, one of the first speakers in the opening session of the peace meeting, said the delegates weren't gathered there to come to a "minimum common ground of belief."
Rather, he said, the meeting would show the world that through their distinctiveness, different faiths provide the wisdom to draw upon "in the struggle against the foolishness of a world still obsessed with fear and suspicion, still in love with the idea of a security based on active hostility, and still capable of tolerating or ignoring massive loss of life among the poorest through war and disease."
And there was a lot of distinctiveness on hand: Standing on the altar of St. Mary of the Angels basilica, Wande Abimbola of Nigeria, representing Africa's traditional Yoruba religion, sang and shook a percussion instrument as he told the delegates that peace can only come with greater respect for indigenous religions.
"We must always remember that our own religion, along with the religions practiced by other people, are valid and precious in the eyes of the Almighty, who created all of us with such plural and different ways of life and belief systems," he said.
A group of four Buddhists from mainland China took their places in the basilica, significant given the recent Sino-Vatican tensions over the appointments of Catholic bishops in the country. They came from Henan's Shaolin temple, famous for its kung fu-fighting monks. And in another novelty, Benedict invited four people who profess no faith whatsoever ' part of his outreach to the world of agnostics and atheists who nevertheless are searching for truth.
Other invitees 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.
They all traveled together on a special papal train that left early Thursday from the Vatican's train station. The delegates are to eat a spare lunch together, have time for silent, private prayer before coming together in the afternoon to make a joint call for peace. They'll return together via train Thursday night and have a special audience with Benedict Friday.