Global terrorism and violence carried out in the name of God show no sign of letting up, Pope Benedict XVI said Monday as he appealed to hundreds of religious leaders to use their faiths to bring about peace.
But while recognition of religion's peacemaking potential abounded at a summit of religious leaders held in this central Italian town, there was little consensus on their role in the process.
"No one is therefore permitted to use the motive of religious difference as a reason or pretext for bellicose behavior toward other human beings," Benedict said in a message read to the summit, which has been held since Pope John Paul II started it 20 years ago.
Benedict said that, contrary to expectations following the fall of the Berlin wall, "the third millennium began with scenarios of terrorism and violence that are showing no sign of waning."
In the message, read by Bishop of Assisi Domenico Sorrentino, Benedict recognized that religion had sometimes been used to justify war, but said that such violence is not caused by faith itself but "by the cultural limits with which it is lived and with which it develops in time."
Once religious sentiment "reaches its maturity ... it cannot but promote between men relations of universal brotherhood," the pontiff wrote.
The two-day "International Meeting and Prayer for Peace" in the town where St. Francis lived and began preaching his message of peace gathers Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Shintoists. It is aimed at finding ways to improve dialogue between cultures and religions.
The pontiff's words fueled the discussions.
"The problem is with politicians, they are the ones who take advantage of religion," said Mohammed Esslimani, teacher of Islamic theology at the University of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "Islam is very clear in prohibiting and criminalizing any misuse of religion, the problem lies with the leaders of some powerful nations."
But others were firm in placing responsibility on men and women of God.
"It's up to religious leaders to teach their communities how to find the deepest reasons, based on the teachings of their respective religious traditions, to live peacefully together," said French Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
"We have to get up here and say 'enough! We are ruining the name of God and we are letting people with criminal intention hijack religion'," said Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress.
"We should say that all Christians who believe in Crusades ... are bad Christians, all Jews who don't believe that you should try to negotiate before you shoot back are bad Jews and all those Muslims who go shoot rockets are bad Muslims," Singer told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the conference.
The first day of the summit also saw some concrete proposals.
Yona Metzger, one of Israel's chief rabbis, appealed to religious leaders to work for the release of all those held captive in the recent Middle East fighting or at least to obtain information on their condition.
He condemned as "disrespectful" the cartoons of Islam's Prophet Muhammad published earlier this year in Western media. But he added, "I expect Muslim religious leaders to condemn any leader of a Muslim country who mocks the Holocaust and calls for a state's obliteration" — a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric.
The summit will end with a prayer for world peace across Assisi, followed by a procession converging on the square in front of the St. Francis Basilica.
Also discussed on the forum's 20th anniversary was the legacy of John Paul, a pontiff who frequently reached out to other faiths.
Organized by the Sant'Egidio Community, a Rome-based lay Catholic group that mediates world conflicts, the usually annual meeting has doubled up this year. It was held in April in Washington, D.C., the first time the forum was held in the United States, and is gathering again in Assisi to celebrate the anniversary.