Pope Benedict XVI on Friday urged intensified dialogue with Islam, saying in a Christmas speech that 2006 will be remembered as a year marked by the danger of a clash between cultures and religions.

Benedict compared the situation in the Muslim world to that faced by Christians beginning in the Enlightenment, the 18th-century movement to promote individual rights, including freedom of religion.

"We Christians feel close to all those who, on the basis of their religious conviction as Muslims, commit themselves against violence," the pope said.

Benedict enflamed many in the Muslim world in September with a speech in which he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

The pope later expressed regret that the words caused offense and stressed they did not express his personal opinion.

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In his speech Friday to the curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, he said 2006 bears "the deep imprint of the horrors of the war waged in the Holy Land area as well as generally of the danger of a clash between cultures and religions."

Benedict also reviewed many of the world's problems as well as important issues for the Church, including celibacy for priests and opposition to gay marriage and legal protection for unmarried couples.

"I cannot silence my worry about the laws on unmarried couples," Benedict said. "Many of these couples have chosen that road because, for the time being, they don't feel up to accepting" the legal bonds of marriage.

Benedict insisted that the church's voice must be heard on such matters. "If we're told that the church should not meddle in these matters, then we can only answer: should mankind not interest us?"

The pope also stressed the requirement for priests to be celibate, saying priests' lives must be centered around God and that celibacy must be "a show of faith."