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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 12:25 GMT
Worried Pope prays for peace
By BBC News Online's Peter Gould
Pope John Paul II will bring together religious leaders this week to pray for world peace.
On Thursday the 81-year-old pontiff travels by train to Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis, the Saint most associated with peace.
It will be the third time the Pope has hosted such a gathering in the Italian town, a place of pilgrimage for Catholics.
It reflects a real concern by the Vatican over the consequences of the attacks on 11 September.
The first day of prayer took place in 1986, amid fears over the threat to the world from nuclear weapons.
Then in 1993, leaders of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths were invited to join the Pope to pray for an end to the war in Bosnia.
Catholics around the world are also being urged to pray for peace, and some local churches have planned services with other faiths.
"There is no doubt the Pope is really alarmed for the future of humanity," said John Wilkins, editor of the Britain's Catholic weekly, The Tablet.
"What happened on September 11 crossed a line and took terrorism to a new level...targeted acts of mass murder.
"The Pope is very anguished. He sees good being threatened by evil, and in his recent speeches he has struck a very apocalyptic note."
More than 100 religious leaders are travelling to Assisi. Between them, they represent all the world's major faiths.
"In particular, Christians and Muslims should meet together to proclaim before the world that religion should never become a motive for conflict, hatred and violence," the Pope said.
"At this historic moment, humanity needs to see gestures of peace and to hear words of hope."
There is a real concern that heightened emotions in the Islamic world could cause problems for minority Christian communities in Muslim countries.
But at the Vatican, Bishop Michael Fitzgerald sees the gathering in Assisi as evidence of a desire shared by all faiths to reach a better understanding.
"It is the signal that different religions can come together to be a positive factor in resolving tensions and working for peace on the basis on justice.
"The events of September 11 have underlined the need for dialogue and strengthened that resolve."
The response from other religions has been enthusiastic. A representative of the World Muslim League described the Pope's initiative as "magnificent".
Among the large Catholic contingent in Assisi will be the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.
"Would it be too much to hope that since September 11 the world is opening its eyes to a new reality?
"May the alliance against the threat of terrorism become a common struggle for justice for the world's poorest, motivated not by what we stand against, but by what we stand for."
Before 11 September, John Paul II had made a conscious effort to reach out to Islam, and create a new understanding between the two faiths after centuries of mistrust and hostility.
In Damascus last year, he became the first pope to enter a mosque. It was a symbolic gesture, but carried hopes of a new dialogue between the two faiths with the largest numbers of followers around the world.
The last thing the Vatican wants is for the "war against terrorism" to be seen by Muslim fundamentalists as a conflict between two civilisations, in which Catholicism is equated with the "infidels" of the West.
In his comments since 11 September, the Pope has chosen his words very carefully. He has expressed sympathy for the victims of the attacks on America, but also concern for the plight of people in Afghanistan, particularly women, children and the elderly.
"He was ferociously outspoken during the Gulf War, but in this situation he clearly accepts that the United States had a right of self defence."
The Pope has also been disturbed by the recent upsurge of violence in the Holy Land. He has stressed that there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without forgiveness.
"Together we must firmly oppose the temptation of hatred and violence that only gives the illusion of resolving conflicts but instead causes real and permanent damage," he said.
The call by John Paul II for a day of prayer has brought a positive response from the leaders of the world's religions.
The real question is what impact it has on their followers.
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