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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When Pope Benedict XVI meets with religious leaders of non-Christian faiths in Washington April 17, five young people representing major non-Christian faiths will give him gifts representative of their traditions.

The pontiff also will speak privately with 10 leaders of those traditions, after a delivering a speech on the Catholic Church's interreligious relations, said Father Dennis McManus, a visiting professor of theology at Jesuit-run Georgetown University and a consultant on Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

During a press briefing at USCCB headquarters in Washington March 27, Father McManus and Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, a specialist in Catholic-Orthodox relations for the USCCB, discussed Pope Benedict's interfaith meeting in Washington April 17 and his New York session with other Christian leaders the next day.

Of the interreligious meeting, to take place at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center near The Catholic University of America, Father McManus said, "It's customary, beginning with Pope John Paul II, that when the pope travels on an apostolic visit outside of Italy, he meets with heads of significant religious communities in those countries he visits."

In Washington he will be meeting "with religious leaders of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain communities," he said.

He said young people from those faiths would present the pope with gifts representing the contributions of their faiths to the world.

"For all sincere believers in God, all who have a spiritual center to their life, all who look for God in great sincerity of heart, the Holy Father is always happy to extend greetings and, as much as possible, to establish good relations and open a conversation whereby those committed to the truth might find the single religious truth, who is God, together," Father McManus said.

He added that the pope, at a later ecumenical meeting in New York, would focus on questions of Christian unity.

He predicted that Pope Benedict would deliver a substantial commentary on Catholic relations with non-Christian religions during the Washington meeting.

He cited Pope John Paul's landmark contributions to Catholic-Jewish and Catholic-Muslim dialogue and said Pope Benedict 's actions can be seen as an effort to further those advances "to engage in a dialogue with monotheistic communities to find who is God."

Christianity, Islam and Judaism are regarded as the three great monotheistic religions in human history.

Father McManus highlighted "the very exciting developments in the last three weeks in Rome, with the establishment of the new Catholic-Muslim forum between the Holy See and Muslim representatives from throughout the world" as a sign of "a new stage in Catholic-Muslim dialogue, in Catholic-Muslim relations" that will be a framework for the pontiff's interreligious meeting in Washington.

On the global level, Catholic-Muslim dialogue is still in its infancy. Pope Benedict's speech last year in Regensburg, Germany, in which he challenged Muslim thinkers on their understanding of religious toleration, initially drew sharp Muslim condemnations but eventually led to a joint declaration by more than 130 Muslim scholars seeking dialogue with the church on the questions the pope raised and on other issues in Catholic-Muslim relations.

In the field of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, three regional dialogues in the United States -- in the East, Midwest and West -- have developed in recent years as models for such dialogues in other parts of the world.

The U.S. dialogues have benefited from the reality that both Catholics and Muslims approach it from their historical experience of minority status, discrimination and suspicion in the United States, which makes them sensitive to each other's difficulties.

Father McManus said the April 17 interreligious program would open with a greeting by Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba of Milwaukee, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. That will be followed by a 20-minute address by the pope "in which I think his theme will be the use of religion as an instrument of peace throughout the entire world."

"Following this, and in response, five young people, one each from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain communities, will present the Holy Father with a gift symbolic of their religious identity and experience," he said.

"After this, religious leaders from each of these groups will be presented to the Holy Father for an exchange, very brief and very personal," he added. "Following this, the great peace prayer of St. Francis of Assisi will be sung and the closing and greeting of thanks by Bishop Sklba will conclude the program."

He said that while the pope will speak individually with about 10 of the representatives of the major non-Christian religions at the meeting, the program does not call for any of those representatives to give a public talk in response to the pope's address.

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Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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