Pope Benedict acknowledged Thursday "with great shame" that Christianity had used force in its long history, as he joined other religious leaders in condemning violence and terrorism in God's name.
Benedict spoke as he hosted some 300 religious leaders from around the world — including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Taoists, Shintoists and Buddhists — in an inter-faith prayer gathering for peace in the city of St Francis, a universally recognized symbol of peace.
The day-long event was called to commemorate the 25th anniversary of an historic initiative in favor of peace hosted here by the late Pope John Paul in 1986.
Each leader, most wearing traditional religious garb, solemnly pledged to promote dialogue and understanding among their own communities, with other religions, and to work incessantly against violence.
"Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon Earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life, love," the pope said in his public commitment at the end of the day.
Christianity's 'true nature'
In his major address at the start of the gathering the pope asked forgiveness for his own church's use of violence in the past.
"As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith," he said in his address to the delegations in an Assisi basilica.
"We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature," he said.
It was one of the few times that a pope has apologized for events such as the Crusades or the use of force to spread the faith in the New World.
Pope John Paul apologized in 2000 for Christianity's historical failures.
Benedict said history had also shown that the denial of God could bring about "a degree of violence that knows no bounds."
He said the concentration camps of World War Two revealed "with utter clarity the consequences of God's absence."
Delegates don't pray together
Unlike in 1986, the gathering did not include common prayer among the delegates.
The difference reflected Benedict's more conservative view of Catholic relations with other religions. In fact, Benedict, who did not attend the 1986 meeting when he was a cardinal, later implicitly criticized it because it implied that all religions were somehow equal.
The 1986 meeting, which took place at a time of the Cold War and conflicts in Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Central America, was billed as a "meeting of prayer for peace."
Thursday's was called a "pilgrimage" for truth and peace and instead of praying in each other's presence, as they did in 1986, the delegates withdrew to various rooms around the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels in the lower part of Assisi for what the program called "silence, reflection and personal prayer."
Thursday's gathering included four people billed as "non-believers" — agnostics the pope said had been invited to represent people in the world who have no faith but are "on the lookout for truth, searching for God."
He said such non-believers should not be confused with militant atheists, who, he said, live in the "false certainty" that there is no God.
The day was not without its moments of inter-religious challenges. A representative of African traditional religions appeared to chide the big churches for acting in a patronizing way.
"The time has come for the leaders of all the world's religions to have a new frame of mind in which indigenous religions are given the same respect and consideration as other religions," said Wande Abimbola of Nigeria.