ROME -- Pope Francis promised friendship, respect and continued dialogue with other religious leaders on Wednesday, pledging cooperation with Orthodox Christian groups, describing the spiritual bond between Catholics and Jews as "very special" and expressing gratitude to Muslim leaders.
"The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions," the pope said. "I want to repeat this: the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions."
Francis, who was formally installed a day earlier, greeted a diverse group of religious leaders in the ornate Clementine Hall inside the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. Among them were Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, as well as other Orthodox leaders; representatives from different Protestant denominations; Jewish and Muslim leaders and advocates; and representatives of the Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Jainist faiths.
"You have an enormous responsibility and task before God and before men," said Bartholomew, the first patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church to attend a papal investiture since the two branches of Christianity broke apart almost one millennium ago.
"The unity of the Christian churches is the first and foremost of our concerns," he added.
The symbolism of the event outweighed the substance, as Francis did not delve into any specifics, instead speaking broadly of collaboration and good will. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, was committed to the interfaith goals set by the Second Vatican Council but made several high-profile decisions and statements that inflamed Jews and Muslims.
In the early days of his papacy, Francis has set a tone of humility and simplicity that has struck a chord with ordinary Catholics and also with other religious leaders. Soon after his election as pope, Francis sent a message to Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, pledging a spirit of "renewed collaboration." Rabbi Di Segni attended Wednesday's meeting and praised the new pope's outreach.
"It's a good start," Rabbi Di Segni said in an interview. "Hopefully, we'll not have any accidents." But, pointing out that disagreements are inevitable, the rabbi added, "What is important is the good will to solve them."
Imam Yahya Pallavicini, vice president of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, shook hands with Pope Francis and presented him with a book exploring the contemplative dimensions of Islam. He said he was touched when Francis expressed his gratitude for the presence of Muslim leaders in the room and predicted that the new pope would deepen the relationship between Catholics and Muslims.
"I think he will take interreligious dialogue among people, he will make it closer to people, not confined to theological exchanges among scholars, or political, territorial and international conflicts," he said.
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.