Pope reaches out to Protestants on conciliatory German tour

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Pope Benedict XVI led historic prayers Friday with Protestant leaders 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 a conciliatory tone with protesters, Jewish leaders and Church members alienated by the recent paedophile priest scandals.

On Friday he called for "fruitful collaboration" with Muslims before holding a groundbreaking prayer service with prominent Lutherans including Chancellor Angela Merkel aimed as a step toward healing a 500-year Christian rift.

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

"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.

Later in Erfurt in former communist East Germany, the pope told prominent Protestants at Martin Luther's Augustinian monastery that the man who caused the schism with Rome nearly five centuries ago had been a passionate Christian.

"What constantly exercised him was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life's journey," Benedict said.

The praise for the father of the Protestant Reformation was a bid for more unity among Christians, one of the stated goals of his six-year-old papacy, as rising numbers in the West turn their backs on the Church entirely.

He said the different wings of the Church should "keep in view just how much we have in common, not losing sight of it amid the pressure towards secularisation -- everything that makes us Christian in the first place and continues to be our gift and our task."

Christians in Germany are neatly divided between Catholics and Lutherans.

Benedict met the head of the Lutheran Church, Nikolaus Schneider, who said ahead of the meeting that he expected 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'," said Schneider.

The monastery where Benedict, Schneider and 20 other religious leaders met is a hallowed site for Protestants as the place Luther studied in 1505, some 12 years before his split with Rome unleashed the Reformation in Europe.

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.

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.

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

And the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, said after the talks with the pontiff Thursday that there were still plenty of issues with the Vatican that raised hackles in his community.

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, rallied against his opposition to artificial contraception, homosexuality and a more prominent role for women in the Church -- as well as his handling of the molestation scandals.

The pope himself said he understood those who had turned away from the Church after last year's revelations of widespread abuse by clergy in Germany.

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

© 2011 AFP

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