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Faith groups gather in Assisi to seek peace

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In a world shaken by terrorism and religious conflict, Pope John Paul II and leaders from all major faiths are uniting to show that faith can be a source of mutual respect and serve as an antidote to violence.

With the pope at the helm, the leaders will gather today at Assisi, Italy, for a day of prayer and peace. During a Jan. 1 speech, the Roman Catholic leader called on Christian, Islamic, and Jewish leaders to "take the lead in publicly condemning terrorism and denying terrorists any form of religious or moral legitimacy."

The indefatigable pontiff invited more than 100 religious representatives to join in a pilgrimage to the Italian town to share reflections, spend time in prayer, and issue a common commitment to pursue an "authentic peace."

"Sept. 11 has made everyone aware of the fact that not addressing the kinds of issues involved here, of tolerance and pluralism, can have catastrophic repercussions," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.

It was with a 1986 meeting in Assisi that John Paul II began his effort to build an alliance with other world faiths, believing they should work together against the common enemy, materialism. The Vatican has since hosted several interfaith gatherings.

But the pope has also sought to build ongoing dialogues, reaching out to apologize for past wrongs of his church and showing respect for other faiths during visits abroad. His proclamation that anti-Semitism is a sin against God and his apology for the Crusades were crucial steps in establishing ongoing interactions with Jews and Muslims.

Today's gathering will also include presentations from leaders of Hinduism, Buddhism, and the traditional African religions, as well as Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant churches.

"Most of our traditions are beginning to come out of their childish, exclusive cocoons and to learn that we have to learn to work together for a better world," says David Rosen, international director for interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, who is attending the Assisi meeting.

Convinced that the world is facing an emergency, the pope said he wished particularly to bring Christians and Muslims together to proclaim to the world that religion must never be a reason for hatred and violence.

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