Followers of all religions must “stand together in defending and promoting life and religious freedom everywhere,” Pope Benedict XVI told a gathering of Jewish, Muslim and other religious leaders Thursday.

Even as each faith enriches public life with its values, each also must always stand for the truth it offers the world. For Christians, he said, “it is Jesus of Nazareth.”

Benedict addressed 220 faith leaders at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, including Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Catholics involved in interreligious dialogue.

He offered warm praise for interreligious cooperation, then zeroed in on a key point — religions should be clear about their differences: “Dear friends, in our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth.”

Benedict greeted 10 selected representatives with a lingering two-handed handshake. He beamed at the five young adults who presented him gifts.

When the pope and invited Jewish guests had left the room so the pope could share a private greeting for the Passover holiday, which begins at sunset Saturday, one of the Muslim representatives called on the others who had spoken to the pope to share what they said.

Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America said he had thanked the pope for years of efforts toward Catholic-Muslim dialogue but asked that he be cautious not to disrupt it. Muzammil Siddiqi of the Fiqh Council of North America, told the pope he hoped Muslims might have a special meeting, too.

Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini said he asked the pope to establish a permanent dialogue between the church and Muslims, noting that the two religions make up more than half of the world’s population.

Benedict’s relationship with Muslims has been difficult. A speech he gave in Germany made reference to a 14th-century emperor’s slur on the prophet Mohammed, and set off protests worldwide. At Easter, he baptized a prominent Italian who had been a non-practicing Muslim.

Benedict has accepted an invitation from Islamic clerics and scholars to meetings scheduled to begin in Rome in November.


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