NEW YORK – Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to visit an American synagogue Friday, bringing greetings for the Passover holiday and accepting gifts of matzo and a seder plate. Benedict, 81, stopped briefly at Park East Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, near the Vatican residence.
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"I find it moving to recall that Jesus, as a young boy, heard the words of Scripture and prayed in a place such as this," he said.
At a Roman Catholic church in Manhattan, the pope later warned other Christian leaders against "so-called prophetic actions" that conflict with traditional views of the Bible, a reference to the debate over Scripture that is fracturing churches in America and around the world.
In his visit to the synagogue, Benedict was shown the congregation's collection of parchment scrolls, and two youngsters presented him with the Passover gifts.
The German-born pontiff then offered a gift of his own: a reproduction of a Jewish codex.
"In our lifetime, we have experienced the ravages of war, the Holocaust, man's inhumanity to man and tasted the joy of freedom," said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who lived in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.
"This momentous occasion takes places on American soil, where men and women escaping the clutches of oppression and religious persecution have built a nation of democracy and freedom. This is a nation which has allowed all religious communities to flourish."
The Jewish community makes "a valuable contribution to the life of the city," Benedict said. "And I encourage all of you to continue building bridges of friendship with all the many different ethnic and religious groups present in your neighborhood."
The visit was Benedict's second as pontiff to a Jewish house of worship. On his first papal trip abroad in 2005, Benedict entered a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, that had been destroyed by the Nazis and rebuilt.
At his visit with Christian leaders, the pontiff said allowing individual congregations to interpret the Gospel undermines evangelism at a time when "the world is losing its bearings" and needs "persuasive common witness" to salvation in Christ.
"Only by holding fast to sound teaching will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world," Benedict said at the evening service with Protestant and Orthodox clergy at St. Joseph's church, which was founded by German immigrants and still regularly celebrates Mass in German.
"Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching. This is the method which the world is waiting to hear from us."
Benedict did not mention specific issues troubling the churches. However, many Protestant groups have been arguing for years over how to understand what the Bible says about truth and salvation, and whether it prohibits gay sex.
The U.S. Episcopal Church caused an uproar among its fellow Anglicans in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The global Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest religious group, is now near the break of schism. Other mainline Protestant groups based in the U.S. are also divided over the issue.
Several of those denominations sent representatives to the pope's Friday event.
Christopher Epting, ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church, said he didn't feel the pope was singling out his or any other church. He added that Episcopalians are still in dialogue with the Catholics.
The ecumenical service was one of the many efforts by Benedict to reach out to other Christians and to members of different faiths during his six-day visit to Washington and New York. It is his first visit to the United States since he was elected pontiff in 2005.
Earlier this week in Washington, the pope met with Jewish leaders, along with Muslim, Buddhist, Jainist and Hindu representatives.
The American Muslim leaders who attended the Washington interreligious meeting had said they were committed to working with the Roman Catholic church but were uneasy about some of Benedict's past comments and actions.
Many were upset by his Easter baptism in St. Peter's Basilica of an Egyptian-born Muslim who has called Islam inherently violent.
Benedict, like Pope John Paul II, has also worked to heal the centuries-old rift between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.
At Friday's services, leaders from several of the denominations briefly greeted the pope. Among them was Bernice A. King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and an elder at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga.
The head of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, a pastor in Eden Prairie, Minn., also attended.