Pope Benedict XVI greeted leaders of other faiths in the United States in a meeting Thursday in Washington, continuing the interfaith contacts that have not always gone well in the first three years of his papacy. ( dpa )
While declaring his intention to build on the work of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict set off a firestorm in the Muslim world in September 2006, when he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor's description of Islam as "evil and inhuman."
A former professor of theology, Benedict was using the citation to make a point about violence and religion, without endorsing the 14th- century statement, in a much broader lecture against secularism.
But it sparked fierce protests in many Muslim countries. A Catholic nun in Somalia was killed in the wake of the uproar, and attacks on Christians took place in other countries including Iraq.
"In our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity," Benedict said Thursday. "While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth."
His meeting on the campus of Catholic University included representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain communities in the United States.
Citing the US history of religious freedom and separation of church and state, guaranteed since the US Constitution of 1787, Benedict encouraged "all religious groups in America to persevere in their collaboration and thus enrich public life with the spiritual values that motivate your action in the world."
"The task of upholding religious freedom is never completed," he said. "New situations and challenges invite citizens and leaders to reflect on how their decisions respect this basic human right."
Benedict noted "a growing interest among governments to sponsor programs intended to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue. These are praiseworthy initiatives."
"As we grow in understanding of one another, we see that we share an esteem for ethical values, discernable to human reason, which are revered by all peoples of goodwill. The world begs for a common witness to these values," he said.
"I therefore invite all religious people to view dialogue not only as a means of enhancing mutual understanding, but also as a way of serving society at large."
The German-born pontiff has drawn occasional criticism from Jewish communities, most recently for his reintroduction earlier this year of a Latin prayer for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.
On Thursday, immediately after addressing the interfaith group, Benedict gathered with a group of US Jews to deliver greetings for Passover, which begins Saturday night.
He wished "peace to the Jewish community in the United States and throughout the world" for the annual feast, saying he was motivated by "our common spiritual heritage."
"I wish to reaffirm the Second Vatican Council's teaching on Catholic-Jewish relations and reiterate the church's commitment to the dialogue that in the past 40 years has fundamentally changed our relationship for the better."
As part of the so-called Vatican II, the church in 1965 explicitly rejected old notions of Jewish collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus, and since then Christians and Jews have experienced "growth in trust and friendship," Benedict said.
The papal tour moves Friday to New York, where the pope is expected to make an informal visit at a Manhattan synagogue before meeting with US leaders of other Christian denominations.