Benedict welcomed some 300 leaders representing a rainbow of faiths to the hilltop Italian town of Assisi to commemorate the 25th anniversary of a daylong prayer for peace here called by Pope John Paul II in 1986 amid Cold War conflicts.
While the event lacked the star power of 1986, when the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and others came together to pray, Thursday's peace meeting included some novelties that the original lacked. Buddhist monks from mainland China were on hand as were four people who profess no faith at all — part of Benedict's efforts to reach out to agnostics and atheists who nevertheless are searching for truth.
Traditional Catholics condemned the Assisi meeting — just as they did the one in 1986 — saying it was blasphemy for the pope to invite leaders of "false" religions to pray to their Gods for peace.
The issue is a sensitive one for Benedict, who has railed against religious relativism, or the idea that there are no absolute truths and that all religions are somehow equal. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he issued a controversial document in 2000 in part as a response to the 1986 Assisi event asserting that the fullness of the means of salvation was found in the Catholic Church alone.
And there was a lot of distinctiveness on hand. Standing on the altar of St. Mary of the Angels basilica, Wande Abimbola of Nigeria, representing Africa's traditional Yoruba religion, sang and shook a percussion instrument as he told the delegates that peace can only come with greater respect for indigenous religions. "We must always remember that our own religion, along with the religions practiced by other people, are valid and precious in the eyes of the Almighty, who created all of us with such plural and different ways of life and belief systems," he said.
Thursday's meeting also included Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and representatives from Greek, Russian, Serbian and Belarusian Orthodox churches as well as Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist leaders. Several rabbis were joined by some 60 Muslims, a half-dozen Hindus and Shinto believers, three Taoists, three Jains and a Zoroastrian.