Sydney's Muslims Welcome International Catholic PilgrimsBy Phil Mercer
14 July 2008
Australia's Muslim leaders have opened their mosques and schools to house Roman Catholic pilgrims for World Youth Day as part of efforts to ease interfaith tensions. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils is also planning mixed-faith sporting competitions and mosque open days for the international festival. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Pope Benedict XVI (R) shakes hands with Cardinal George Pell at the Kenthurst Study Center in Sydney, 14 Jul 2008Roman Catholic leaders in Australia sought the help of other faiths to help house an army of foreign pilgrims arriving for the World Youth Day events this week.

Sydney's Muslim community responded with an offer to accommodate young visitors in Islamic schools.

Islamic leaders here see World Youth Day as an opportunity to break down barriers between the faiths.

Father Mark Podesta, a Catholic priest, says the involvement of Islamic schools is an important step forward.

"One thing that really marks Sydney and marks Australia is the fact that we come from many different backgrounds, many different faiths, many different ethnicities, nationalities and yet we all live alongside one another in peace, with goodwill and in harmony and so this is an opportunity to build bridges, to forge friendships and to break down barriers," he said. "This is an opportunity to show the rest of the world that people of different backgrounds and different beliefs can live alongside one another in peace and goodwill and harmony."

Pope Benedict XVI is in Sydney for World Youth Day, which is expected to draw more than 100,000 foreign visitors and tens of thousands of Australians to the city.

Relations between Australia Muslim community of 350,000 and its Christian majority at times are strained. In December 2005 groups of young white Australians clashed with those of Middle Eastern backgrounds in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla.

In May local officials rejected plans to build an Islamic school on the outskirts of the country's biggest city, Sydney. Critics say the decision was based on racism, but officials say the school was rejected because of town planning issues, such as traffic flows.

Last year Pope Benedict sparked fury in the Muslim world when he quoted a medieval text that criticized some teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman".

Sydney's Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, defended the pontiff's comments and drew a link between Islamists and violence.

Church officials have said the pope's visit to Australia has fostered a new spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Pope Benedict is taking a few days rest after arriving in Sydney Sunday. He begins his official engagements on Thursday, when he travels across Sydney's iconic harbor.

World Youth Day is expected to attract more foreign visitors than the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

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