By Philip Pullella
ASSISI, Italy (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, leading a global inter-religious meeting, acknowledged on Thursday "with great shame" that Christianity had used force in its long history but said violence in God's name had no place in the world today.
Benedict spoke as he hosted some 300 religious leaders from around the world - including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Taoists, Shintoists and Buddhists - in an inter-faith prayer gathering for peace in the city of St Francis.
"As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith," he said in his address to the delegations in an Assisi basilica.
"We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature," he said.
It was one of the few times that a pope has apologized for events such as the Crusades or the use of force to spread the faith in the New World. The late Pope John Paul apologized in 2000 for Christianity's historical failures.
Benedict, who in his address condemned terrorism, said history had also shown that the denial of God could bring about "a degree of violence that knows no bounds." He said the concentration camps of World War Two revealed "with utter clarity the consequences of God's absence."
The Assisi gathering, held on the 25th anniversary of a historic initiative in favor of peace hosted by John Paul in 1986, this time did not include common prayer among the delegates.
"ALL RELIGIONS NOT EQUAL"
The difference reflected Benedict's more conservative view of Catholic relations with other religions. In fact, Benedict, who did not attend the 1986 meeting when he was a cardinal, later implicitly criticized it because it implied that all religions were somehow equal.
The 1986 meeting, which took place at a time of the Cold War and conflicts in Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Central America, was billed as a "meeting of prayer for peace."
Thursday's anniversary gathering in Assisi, birthplace of St Francis, one of the world's most universally recognized symbols of peace, was called a "pilgrimage" for truth and peace.
In fact, instead of praying in each other's presence, as they did in 1986, the delegates were withdrawing to various rooms around the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels in the lower part of Assisi for what the program called "silence, reflection and personal prayer."
In his morning address, the Muslim delegate, Kyai Haji Hasyim Muzadi, general secretary of the International Conference of Islamic Scholars, said:
"Reality demonstrates that many human problems on this planet in fact originate from people with religions."
A representative of African traditional religions appeared to chide the big churches.
"The time has come for the leaders of all the world's religions to have a new frame of mind in which indigenous religions are given the same respect and consideration as other religions," he said.
Thursday's gathering included four people billed as "non-believers" -- agnostics the pope said had been invited to represent people in the world who have no faith but are "on the lookout for truth, searching for God."
He said such non-believers should not be confused with militant atheists, who, he said, live in the "false certainty" that there is no God.
In the afternoon, the delegates were moving to the upper part of Assisi for another round of speeches and to pay homage at the tomb of St Francis.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)