pope benedict 298 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to meet religious leaders from around the world - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Zoroastrians - who are gathering for an annual peace conference in the southern city of Naples, opening Sunday.
Benedict won't be participating in the three-day conference but timed a one-day visit to Naples to coincide with it. He will meet with the religious leaders ahead of its start, organizers said.
Among those expected to attend are the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams; one of Israel's chief rabbis, Yona Metzger; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians; several Muslim academics and the political adviser to the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheik Mohammed Rashid Kabbani.
Benedict has made reaching out to other faiths - particularly Muslims and Jews - a priority of his pontificate.
The Naples meeting comes more than two decades after Pope John Paul II invited world religious leaders to the hillside town of Assisi, birthplace of peace-loving St. Francis, for the first such World Day of Prayer for Peace.
That Oct. 27, 1986 prayer meeting - attended by the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and a host of interfaith leaders - prompted grumbling from within the Vatican that the event suggested that the Catholic Church considered all religious traditions equally valid.
Benedict - then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the head of the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog - was among those opposed to the meeting and simply didn't show up, Italian news reports have said. He did attend a repeat prayer day hosted by John Paul in Assisi in 2002, the reports said.
Organizers contended there was nothing unusual about Benedict's lack of participation with the other religious leaders at the Naples conference, noting that over two decades John Paul only participated in the two or three peace meetings that he himself sponsored.
"There is nothing to explain," said Mario Marazziti, spokesman of the Sant'Egidio Community, the lay Catholic organization that is organizing the meeting. "What's more, the pope this time will meet with the religious representatives."
Marazziti said the choice of Naples was particularly significant to host this year's conference, whose theme is "For a world without violence: religions and cultures in dialogue."
"Naples is a city that knows well the weight of violence," he said. "Not only the problem of violence and killings, but the violence that is today a dimension of daily life that all big cities of the world must deal with."
During the conference, religious and political leaders - including the presidents of Tanzania and Ecuador - will participate in more than 30 panel discussions on topics as diverse as AIDS, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, faith and science and Islam and peace.