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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 12:18 GMT
Pope leads world prayer day
Religious leaders at Assisi
Spreading the message 'religions do not create conflict'
Pope John Paul II led 200 other religious leaders in a day of prayers for peace in Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis.

Pope John Paul II
The Pope: Never again violence, never again war, never again terrorism
Roman Catholic cardinals, Muslim clerics, Jewish rabbis, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahais, Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians and members of African traditional religions were among those assembled for prayer.

The Pope wanted the day of prayer to reinforce his message after the 11 September attacks that religion must not be a motive for conflict in the 21st Century.

He and his guests - representing various Christian Churches and 11 other religions - gathered under a huge white plastic tent outside the basilica where St Francis is buried.

Religions don't create conflicts but people do

Bishop Vincenzo Paglia
Heavy security surrounded the event, with about 1,000 police deployed along the route and helicopters hovering overhead.

After a speech by the Pope, members of each religion held separate prayers, each according to their own rites of worship.

During the afternoon, representatives joined together for a final ceremony, with each symbolically carrying a candle.

The Pope told them: "Never again violence. Never again war. Never again terrorism."

Broad participation

They had travelled to Assisi from the Vatican's seldom-used rail station aboard a seven-car train supplied by Italy's state-run railway.

Hundreds of people lined the tracks in Rome when the train pulled out, waving to the Pope and the other religious leaders.

The 81-year-old Pope, who had wanted to use the "peace train" to make all participants of the summit feel equal, was greeted by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi when the train arrived.

The Pope with other religous leaders
Religious leaders lit candles for peace
The Pope has organised two similar peace days at Assisi in the past - one in 1986 during the Cold War and the war in Lebanon, and then again in 1993 during the Balkan conflict.

Prominent among the Pope's guests this time were 29 senior Muslim clerics from a wide range of Islamic countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Morocco and Libya.

But the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dalai Lama, did not attend - both said they had previous engagements.

Franciscan monks removed crosses and other religious objects from rooms in a convent near the saint's tomb, where some guests prayed.

Religion and war

"In times of greater anxiety about the fate of the world, we sense more clearly than ever the duty to commit ourselves personally to the defence and promotion of the fundamental good which is peace," the Pope said in his opening remarks.

Father Thomas Calleja, a Roman Catholic priest who travelled to Assisi from Malta, said: "After the event of the Twin Towers... people were saying this is a war against Muslims.

"But the Pope wanted to show the whole world that there is nothing wrong between Muslims and other religions."

Muslim representatives at Assisi
Twenty-nine prominent Muslim leaders are taking part
Bishop Vincenzo Paglia - founder of the Sant' Egidio peace group which has mediated in many conflicts, including Kosovo - said prayer days helped the search for peace.

"The solution to conflicts is up to single parties, but a day like today should provide a new energy of peace and hope that should help people resolve their conflicts."

"Religions don't create conflicts, but people do," he said.

The Pope's initiative has not been universally welcomed.

"To pray with heretics, schismatics, rabbis, mullahs, witch doctors and various idolaters creates confusion among Catholic believers," members of Italy's governing coalition, Federico Bricolo and Massimo Polledri, said in a statement.

The BBC's Brian Barron in Assisi
"The Pope said the faiths...must fend off the dark forces of terrorism"
The BBC's Robert Pigott
"This is a sign of his deep concern at the risk of conflict between Muslims and Christians"
See also:

24 Jan 02 | Europe
Pope lights beacon of hope
23 Jan 02 | World
Worried Pope prays for peace
29 Mar 01 | World
Pope reaches out to Islam
22 Mar 00 | Middle East
Israeli and Arab press hail Pope
20 Mar 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Pope on a tightrope
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