SYDNEY, July 18 – Pope Benedict XVI warned Christian leaders Friday the push to unite Christian churches was at a "critical juncture", as Anglicans met to avert a schism over the ordination of women and gays.
The pontiff, leading hundreds of thousands of Catholics in World Youth Day celebrations in Australia, also called on people of all religions to unite against "sinister and indiscriminate forms of violence".
At a meeting with around 50 Christian leaders, including those from the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran and Uniting churches, the pontiff called on them to fight for unity within the Christian faith.
"I think you would agree that the ecumenical movement has reached a critical juncture," the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics told a meeting in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral.
"We must guard against any temptation to view doctrine as divisive and hence an impediment to the seemingly more pressing and immediate task of improving the world in which we live."
The pope did not elaborate on what he saw as the critical juncture in the search for greater unity.
But his comments came as Anglican bishops from around the world gathered at Canterbury in England for a once-a-decade conference amid splits between liberal and conservative elements of the church.
Around 650 bishops were to attend the 20-day conference, with the issue of gays and women in the church expected to dominate.
About a quarter of the church’s bishops — including most from Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda — are staying away, a week after the Church of England approved the ordination of women bishops.
The pope later told leaders from the Muslim, Jewish and other faiths that religions had a special role in maintaining peace and uniting peoples.
"A harmonious relationship between religion and public life is all the more important at a time when some people have come to consider religion as a cause of division rather than a force for unity," he said.
"In a world threatened by sinister and indiscriminate forms of violence, the unified voice of religious people urges nations and communities to resolve conflicts through peaceful means and with full regard for human dignity."
After a series of private meetings Friday, the pope took part at the start of a "stations of the cross" re-enactment of the last days of Jesus Christ’s life.
The re-enactment, held at some of Sydney’s most famous sites including the Opera House, had been expected to draw between 350,000 and 450,000 spectators, organisers said.
Police moved seven activists from Broken Rites, a support group for victims of abuse by Catholic clergy, from outside St Mary’s Cathedral where the Pope was to pray at the start of the re-enactment.
"It’s really shameful of the church to be doing this, to be moving people on. They’re just stopping people from being heard," said protester John Ellis.
Thousands of spectators gathered at each of the seven sites as the actors made their way around the 13 stations in bright sunshine in the heart of Sydney.
As night fell on the city, the crucifixion of Jesus was solemnly re-enacted at the former wharves where a day earlier the 81-year-old pontiff received a rapturous welcome from some 200,000 young Catholic pilgrims.
The World Youth Day celebrations, aimed at strengthening the faith of young Catholics, ends on Sunday with a papal mass, which organisers hope will attract 500,000 people.