VATICAN CITY - In his first meeting with representatives of world religions, Pope Francis called Wednesday, March 20, for friendship and respect among all faiths to defend peace and justice.
"We must do much for the good of the poorest, the weak, and those who are suffering, to favor justice, promote reconciliation and build peace," the pontiff told the meeting cited by Reuters.
Speaking to representatives of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Anglicism, Orthodox and Methodism, the pontiff said followers of all religions and even non-believers had to recognize their joint responsibility to the world.
"I very much appreciate your presence and I see in it a sign of mutual respect and of cooperation for the common good of humanity," he said.
"We can do a lot for the good of people who are poor, who are weak, who suffer... and to promote reconciliation and peace.
"The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of furthering respect of friendship between men and women of different religious traditions.
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.
In another sign of his simpler style, Francis addressed the religious leaders while seated in a beige armchair and not the usual elaborate throne used in the ornate hall for audiences.
He told the religious leaders to fight "a one-dimensional vision of a human person, according to which man is reduced to what he produces and what he consumes," which he said was "one of the most dangerous snares of our times".
While he said history had shown that any attempt to eliminate God had produced "much violence," he reached out to those who seek truth, goodness and beauty without belonging to any religion.
"They are our precious allies in the commitment to defend human dignity, build a more peaceful coexistence among people and protect nature with care," he said.
Muslim leaders have praised the pope's call for inter-religious friendship.
"Friendship is a core way to increase brotherhood between believers and also to increase the deepness of the dignity of humanity," Italian Muslim leader Yahya Pallavicini said after the meeting.
"We can't consider man only as a consumer or as someone who has to be considered only in terms of the market but as a believer and as a person who has the holiness in his heart."
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.
Relations hit new ebb after the pope said Christians in the Middle East were facing persecution following a church attack in Egypt.
Jewish Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Inter-religious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, also hailed the pontiff's endeavor.
"I feel a great deal of excitement and optimism and hope," he told Reuters.
"He is deeply committed to the Catholic-Jewish relationship.
Before his address, the pope had a private meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew from Istanbul, who attended Francis's inaugural Mass on Tuesday.
It was the first time the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians had attended a Roman pope's inaugural Mass since the Great Schism between western and eastern Christianity in 1054.
At Wednesday's meeting, Francis called Bartholomew "my brother Andrew," a reference to the apostle who was the brother of St Peter and was the first bishop of the Church of Byzantium.Francis also held a private session with Metropolitan Hilarion, the foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest in the Orthodox world.