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Associated Press

SYDNEY, Australia – Pope Benedict XVI on Friday urged religious leaders of all kinds to unite against those who use faith to divide communities – an apparent reference to terrorism in the name of religion.

Benedict met with representatives of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths for about 40 minutes during the Roman Catholic Church’s youth festival, which has drawn hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Sydney.

“In a world threatened by sinister and indiscriminate forms of violence, the unified voice of religious people urges nations and communities to resolve conflicts through peaceful means and with full regard for human dignity,” Benedict told a gathering of clerics from different faiths in Sydney.

Without mentioning terrorism directly, the pontiff said creating harmony between religion and public life was “all the more important at a time when some people have come to consider religion as a cause of division rather than a force for unity.”

The remarks come as the Vatican tries to repair ties with the Islamic world that were strained by a speech he gave in 2006 that appeared to associate Islam with violence, outraging many Muslims.

Signs of lingering prickliness were evident Friday in the words of Sheikh Mohamadu Saleem of the National Imam’s Council of Australia, who in a statement read at the meeting said Muslims should be more understanding of other religions.

“At the same time, a significant amount of the Christian groups and other religions must overcome their prejudice to Muslims and Islam,” he said.

The pope met separately with leaders of different Christian denominations, and said they, too, must work together more closely to ensure their beliefs stay a core part of society. On his way to Australia, the pope described the church in the West as being in crisis because people feel they have no need for God.

“I think you would agree that the ecumenical movement has reached a critical juncture,” the pope said. “We must guard against any temptation to view doctrine as divisive and hence an impediment to the seemingly more pressing and immediate task of improving the world in which we live.”

As part of celebration of the pope’s visit, hundreds of pilgrims lined Sydney’s streets to watch a reenactment of Jesus’ last days and his crucifixion. During the performance, which Benedict opened with a prayer, an actor playing Christ was dragged past some of the city’s most famous landmarks, strung upside down and eventually “nailed” to a cross.

Roman Catholics watched the scene solemnly as darkness fell, some clutching each other and wiping away tears.

In a park across the street from St. Mary’s Cathedral, where the pontiff is staying and where he held his Friday meetings, a handful of protesters against the church’s handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal waved placards that read “Hands off our kids” and “Clergy sexual abuse turns Christianity upside down.”

In his remarks to the interfaith group, Benedict stressed that religion was a “fundamental right” of all people that could not be contained by geography – an apparent reference to efforts by countries such as China to control some forms of religion. The pope did not directly mention China.

The Vatican is trying to repair ties with China, whose communist leaders cut ties with the Roman Catholic church in 1951. Beijing objects to the Vatican’s tradition of having the pope name his own bishops, calling it interference in China’s affairs.

China appoints bishops for the state-sanctioned Catholic church. Still, many of the country’s estimated 12 million Catholics worship in congregations outside the state-approved church. Benedict is eager for the Holy See to re-establish diplomatic ties with China to better protect his flock there.

On Thursday, the pontiff, appearing rested and in good form, gave his first major speech before an estimated crowd of 200,000 pilgrims gathered for World Youth Day. Tens of thousands more lined Sydney harbor’s foreshore as he toured the city, first by boat and then in the popemobile.

In his address, Benedict warned that mankind’s “insatiable consumption” has scarred the Earth and squandered its resources, telling followers that taking care of the planet is vital to humanity – striking a theme that has earned him a reputation as the “green pope.”

Associated Press Writer Victor L. Simpson contributed to this report from Sydney.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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