(By Denis Greenan). Vatican City, March 20 - Pope Francis reached out to other religions and Christian Churches Wednesday, telling visiting leaders in the Vatican he was "determined" to pursue dialogue with them in respect and friendship. He also said the Catholic Church should be "close" to those who did not have believe in God. "The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of promoting friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions," Pope Francis said not once, but twice, in order to underline its importance. "I confirm as of now my determination to continue on the path of ecumenical dialogue," Francis continued. He added that unity among Christians is "the first and foremost of our concerns, one of the basic requirements for our Christian testimony to be credible" to those on the fringes or outside the church. Francis referred to the Second Vatican Council and "the words of the blessed Pope John XXIII" who in his inaugural discourse cited Jesus Christ's "ardent prayer" to God for unity before crucifixion. The pope added: "Yes, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we all feel intimately united" in Christ's prayer at the Last Supper 'ut unum snit', that the religion be one. The pope also addressed Jewish leaders specifically, underlining the "extremely special spiritual bond" that ties Christians and Jews. Pope Francis said he would continue the "Year of Faith", an initiative initiated by "my venerated predecessor Benedict XVI with truly inspired intuition". Continuing his stance as defender of the poor and the weak, Francis added that he was "aware of the responsibility that we all bring to our world, toward all of creation, that we must love and protect. And we can do much for the good of those who are poor, those who are weak, for those who suffer, to favor justice, to promote reconciliation, to build peace". Francis greeted the archbishop of Constantinople by saluting the apostle St. Andrew, founder of the Church of Byzantium and patron saint of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, located in modern Turkey. "I thank my brother Andrew from the heart," Pope Francis told Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. According to Orthodox Christian tradition, St. Andrew was the brother of St. Peter, who founded the Roman Catholic Church. Greeting and thanking Muslims for their love of God, he told attendees that he appreciated "Muslims who worship God as living and merciful, and whom you call upon in prayer, all of you". At the end of the meeting, the pope gave a long handshake to the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni. "I trust we can continue our fruitful dialogue," he told him. Francis also showed his concern to try to win back the many people who have fallen away from the Catholic Church in Europe and other parts of the developed world. He said the Church should try to support the faithless, as well as people who believe in God. "We should be close to men and women who, while not seeing themselves as belonging to any traditional religion, are in search of truth, goodness and beauty, which is the truth, goodness and beauty of God," Francis said.
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