GENEVA – Pope Francis on Thursday encouraged Christians to work together to further peace and justice in the world and resist the temptation to use religious differences as excuses to thwart unity as he made a visit to Geneva, one of the first cities to embrace the Protestant Reformation.
Francis pitched for greater togetherness at an ecumenical prayer service hosted by the World Council of Churches, which is marking its 70th anniversary this year.
The pope told his hosts: "I have desired to come here, a pilgrim in quest of unity and peace. I thank God because here I have found you, brothers and sisters, already making this same journey."
His daylong trip to the Swiss city is aimed at helping Francis promote his view that Christians, despite theological differences, can join forces to work for peace and justice in the world.
"For us as Christians, walking together is not a ploy to strengthen our own positions, but an act of obedience to the Lord and love for our world," Francis said, speaking in Italian.
In remarks of welcome, U.S. Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson told the pontiff that his visit "has inspired and enthused" those making a "common journey of pilgrimage of justice and peace."
The ceremony was livened by song, including joyous, Gospel-style numbers.
The WCC is a fellowship of 350 churches that aims to show the unity of the Christian faith. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member
Francis said that "all you need to do is read history" to see how religious divisions have led to wars and destruction.
"How hard it is to leave behind centuries-old disagreements and mutual recriminations," the pope said.
But he urged all Christians to concentrate on what unites, not separates, them.
"Our differences must not be excuses," Francis said. He said it was possible to "pray, evangelize and serve together."
Francis had an opportunity to confer with the WCC leadership after the prayer service.
He was scheduled to celebrate Mass in early evening at an international exhibition center near the city's airport.
The pontiff received a red-carpet welcome when he arrived in Geneva. He smiled and shook hands with Swiss President Alain Berset and chatted amiably with a girl and a boy, dressed in traditional costumes, who presented him with bouquets of flowers.
Francis, who has used his papacy to champion the causes peace and justice, has often suggested that Christians can work closely together on humanitarian projects.
For example, the pontiff has been a big booster of efforts by a Rome-based Catholic charity and the Waldensian Evangelical Church to bring Syrian refugees to Italy on special flights known as "humanitarian corridors" so that those fleeing war won't have to risk their lives at the hands of migrant traffickers.
D'Emilio reported from Rome