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 CNS Story:

ISRAEL-DOME May-12-2009 (530 words) With photos. xxxi

Pope visits Dome of the Rock, urges expansion of interfaith dialogue

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- In a visit to one of Islam's holiest places, Pope Benedict XVI said Christians, Muslims and Jews have a "grave responsibility" to expand dialogue and mend divisions.

"Those who honor the one God believe that he will hold human beings accountable for their actions," the pope told Muslim leaders May 12 in Jerusalem.

"Undivided love for the one God and charity for one's neighbor thus become the fulcrum around which all else turns. This is why we work untiringly to safeguard human hearts from hatred, anger or revenge," he said.

The pope made his remarks during a visit to a complex of holy buildings that includes the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Situated just above the Western Wall in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, the complex is called the "Noble Sanctuary" by Muslims.

The pope removed his shoes before entering the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century shrine that protects an exposed rock revered by Muslims as the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.

The pope was guided through the shrine by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, the Sunni cleric who oversees Islamic holy places in the city. Because of restoration work, however, the rock was not visible during the visit.

Later, the mufti hosted the pope in his office with other Muslim officials.

The pope, in his speech to the group, underlined the common ground shared by all three monotheistic religions: Each believes in the same God, each recognizes Abraham as a forefather and each has gained a large following through the centuries.

In a world "sadly torn by divisions, this sacred place serves as a stimulus and also challenges men and women of good will to work to overcome misunderstandings and conflicts of the past and to set out on a path of sincere dialogue," he said.

The pope said believers may engage in such dialogue with reluctance or ambivalence because it touches beliefs that are central to their lives.

"Yet we can begin with the belief that the one God is an infinite source of justice and mercy," he said.

The pope said that as Muslims and Christians continue their dialogue, he hoped they would explore more deeply how "the oneness of God is inextricably tied to the unity of the human family."

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said the mufti gave a speech in Arabic that touched upon issues of concern to Palestinians, including the Israeli occupation of lands, restriction of movement and subsequent disruption to the economy. But the spokesman said the mufti made his points respectfully and without an "aggressive" tone.

The text of the mufti's remarks was not immediately available.

After the encounter, the mufti told reporters, "Our Palestinian people are deprived of the sense of safety and security and of its basic rights as a result of the Israeli occupation." He said he hoped the pope's visit would draw attention to the injustices suffered by Palestinians.

The day before, the mufti had been scheduled to speak at the Palestinian Media Center in Jerusalem, but Israeli police closed the center before the press conference could be held.

END


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