By Philip Pullella
AWALI, Bahrain (Reuters) -Pope Francis on Friday appealed to religious leaders to help bring the world back from "the brink of a delicate precipice" and oppose a new race to rearm that he said was redesigning Cold War-era spheres of influence.
Francis spoke on his first full day in Bahrain as he closed a forum on East-West dialogue promoted by the king of the Gulf country where, unlike Saudi Arabia, Christians are allowed to practice their faith publicly in churches.
The visit continues the pope's policy of improving ties with the Islamic world following a historic visit to Abu Dhabi in 2019, the first by any pope to the Arabian peninsula. He has visited about 10 predominantly Muslim states since his election in 2013.
Francis, who suffers from a knee ailment that forces him to use a wheelchair and cane, wove his speech around the role of religions in promoting peace, disarmament and social justice.
"After two terrible world wars, a cold war that for decades kept the world in suspense, catastrophic conflicts taking place in every part of the globe, and in the midst of accusations, threats and condemnations, we continue to find ourselves on the brink of a delicate precipice and we do not want to fall," he said in a gleaming marble courtyard of the royal palace.
Apparently referring to Ukraine, Francis condemned a situation where "a few potentates are caught up in a resolute struggle for partisan interests, reviving obsolete rhetoric, redesigning spheres of influence and opposing blocs".
RELIGIONS CANNOT BACK WAR
Francis, who supports a total ban on nuclear weapons and has often condemned the global arms trade, said religious leaders cannot support wars - in apparent reference to Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, who has given enthusiastic backing to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and who the pope has implicitly criticised before.
Speaking before the pope, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa called for unanimity in stopping the war between Russia and Ukraine, and a "serious dialogue for the good of all humanity".
The pope echoed the call, as did the third speaker, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar mosque and university, who signed the 2019 "Human Fraternity" document, a landmark manifesto on the role of religions in seeking peace.
Francis, without naming any countries, also condemned the financing of terrorism.
On Friday afternoon, Francis addressed Bahrain's Muslim Council of Elders in the courtyard of the royal mosque, where he praised those Muslim leaders who "see in extremism a danger that corrodes genuine religion" and called for more dialogue between Islam and other religions.
"We need to put a future of fraternity ahead of a past of antagonism, overcoming historical prejudices and misunderstandings in the name of the One who is the source of peace," he said.
A small boy recited a verse from the Koran and a girl read a passage from the Old Testament.
Francis later presided at an ecumenical prayer attended by members of various Christian denominations in the cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, the largest church on the Arabian peninsula and one of the two churches serving Bahrain's tiny Catholic community of about 160,000.
The cathedral was built on land donated by the king and one of the monarch's sons welcomed him to the church.
On Saturday, the pope was due to say Mass for an estimated 30,000 people at Bahrain's National Stadium. He returns to Rome on Sunday.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alison Williams)