Pope reaches out to Muslims on conciliatory German tour

23rd September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI reached out Friday to Muslim leaders with a call for mutual respect on the second day of his visit to his German homeland aimed at bridging the yawning gulf between religious faiths.

The 84-year-old arrived in Berlin Thursday at the start of a four-day tour of his native country, striking conciliatory tones with protesters, Jewish leaders and Church members alienated by the recent paedophile priest scandals.

On Friday, he turned his attention to the Islamic faith, calling for dialogue so the two faiths could forge a "fruitful collaboration."

"We believers have a special contribution to make towards building a better world," he told representatives of Germany's four-million-strong Muslim community.

"If our actions are to be effective, we need to grow in dialogue and mutual esteem," added the pope in his address at the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican embassy, which is located in a largely Muslim neighbourhood of the capital.

Christian and Muslims have many things that bind them, which can act as an example to society, Benedict said.

"I am thinking, for example, of the protection of the family based on marriage, respect for life in every phase of its natural course or the promotion of greater social justice," he said.

Later Friday, the pope was to lead a groundbreaking prayer service with Protestant leaders at the monastery where Martin Luther studied in Erfurt, some 300 kilometres (200 miles) southwest of Berlin.

The pope has stressed the goal of unity in the Christian Church during his six-year papacy. Christians in Germany, the cradle of Luther's Protestant Reformation, are neatly divided between Catholics and Lutherans.

Germany's top archbishop Robert Zollitsch said in the run-up to the visit that the pope's trip lent a "new impetus" to ecumenism -- reuniting the Christian Church -- and that "great progress" had already been made.

Benedict will meet the country's top Protestant, Nikolaus Schneider, who also pledged more than handshakes.

"It's clear to everyone that we're not going to go by the motto 'it's nice that we all met up'," Schneider, who is the head of the Lutheran Church in Germany, said ahead of the meeting.

The pope was then expected to lead an ecumenical service for around 300 invited guests including Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.

The monastery in Erfurt where Benedict, Schneider and 20 other religious leaders were set to meet for 30 minutes is a hallowed site for Protestants.

It is where Luther studied in 1505, some 12 years before his split with Rome unleashed the Reformation in Europe.

Welcoming Benedict Thursday, President Christian Wulff stressed that Christians should strive for more mutual tolerance.

"I'm convinced that we need an explanation for what divides us, not what unites us," said Wulff, who called for more understanding from the Vatican for Catholics like himself who had divorced and re-married.

The Erfurt region was also home to one of the largest and most resilient Catholic communities in communist East Germany, which was officially hostile to organised religion, before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

On his last trip to his native land, in 2006, he offended the Muslim community by appearing to link Islam with violence in a speech at his former university in Regensburg.

The pope's first day in Germany, spent entirely in Berlin, was marked by an outpouring of joy from the faithful during a colourful mass for more than 60,000 at Berlin's Olympic Stadium, but also a protest by approximately 10,000.

Papal opponents, some dressed as condoms or nuns, protested against his opposition to artificial contraception, homosexuality and a more prominent role for women in the Church -- as well as his handling of the abuse scandals.

The pope himself said he understood those who had turned away from the Church after the recent sex abuse scandals, with people leaving both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in droves.

He called for closer ties between the Catholic and Jewish faiths after a meeting with community leaders, drawing lessons from the Nazi Holocaust.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics was expected to give 18 sermons and speeches.

The next stop on the papal tour after Erfurt is the predominantly Catholic city of Freiburg, addressing an estimated total of 260,000 people in his mother tongue before his visit ends Sunday.

© 2011 AFP

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