VATICAN CITY - In a bid to restore relations with Muslim countries, Pope Francis urged the West on Friday to intensify interfaith dialogue with Islam to build bridges connecting all people across the world.
In this work (peace building), the role of religion is fundamental. It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God, Pope Francis told diplomats accredited to the Vatican on Friday, March 22.
But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people.
Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.
The new pope was addressing ambassadors from the 180 countries accredited with the Holy See.
He urged them to share his objectives including fighting poverty, building peace and establishing true links of friendship between all people, by building bridges between them.
To this aim, promoting interreligious dialogue, particularly with Islam, is critical, he said.
Relations between Muslims and the Vatican strained in 2006 after Pope Benedict quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor that everything Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) brought was evil and inhuman.
Benedict had repeatedly said the words did not reflect his personal views but stopped short of a clear apology to Muslims.
The pontiff's remarks had prompted Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, to halt dialogue with the Vatican.
Relations hit new ebb after the pope said Christians in the Middle East were facing persecution following a church attack in Egypt.
At the time, Al-Azhar said it would cut ties with the Vatican over Benedict's repeated treatment of Islam in a negative way.
Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, said he was grateful that so many civil and religious leaders from the Islamic world had attended his installation Mass on Tuesday.
The Vatican also said Friday that Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyib, Al Azhar's chief imam, had sent a message congratulating Francis for his election.
Pope Francis urged ambassadors to help keep religion central in public life and promote inter-religious dialogue as a catalyst for efforts to build peace.
Dialogue, he said, should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister.
He underlined the importance of defending the poor when he explained why he had decided to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, who is associated with austerity and help for the poor.
"Fighting poverty, both material and spiritual, building peace and constructing bridges: these, as it were, are the reference points for a journey that I want to invite each of the countries here represented to take up," he said.
In his speech, the pope thanked Christians in the developing world "who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless and all the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and just".
Pope Francis, the first from Latin America, was elected last week to replace Benedict XVI, who resigned for health reasons.
Since his election a week ago, Francis has set the tone for a new, humbler papacy, calling on the Church to defend the weak and protect the environment.
He also drew attention to the need to defend nature and included it in his speech to the diplomats.
"Here too, it helps me to think of the name of (Saint)Francis, who teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment, which all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another's detriment," he said.