ERFURT, Germany — Pope Benedict XVI made a landmark visit Friday to the monastery where Martin Luther studied before splitting from the Catholic Church centuries ago and launching the Protestant Reformation.
In a sign of how far relations have improved between the two denominations in recent decades, the pope praised Luther for his "deep passion and driving force" in his beliefs. He didn't announce any concrete steps to achieve greater unity among Christians, as some had hoped.
During an ecumenical service held in the monastery's stone chapel, with soaring stained glass windows that date from even before Luther prayed here in the early 1500s, Benedict acknowledged there was talk ahead of the visit that he would come bearing an "ecumenical gift."
But the pontiff told an audience including representatives of Germany's Lutheran Church that such a belief was "a political misreading of faith and of ecumenism."
Leaders from both sides of the church were quick to underline that the pontiff's mere presence in the heartland of the Reformation was a key signal to how vastly relations have improved.
"It must be recalled that the pope has come to this monastery in Erfurt as a gesture that is an indication that he is fully aware of its meaning," said Thies Gundlach, a deputy in the German Lutheran Church.
Nevertheless, expectations from the Lutherans remain high, as the community looks ahead to celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of Luther's nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in nearby Wittenberg demanding change in the Catholic church that ultimately led to a split.
German Lutheran leader Nikolaus Schneider told the pope "it is time to take real steps for reconciliation" and suggested Catholics join Protestants in marking the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
The pontiff started the day in Berlin with a private Mass and meetings with leaders from Germany's Muslim community. He met with Jewish leaders on Thursday, before celebrating a Mass in Berlin that attracted some 70,000 faithful from across the nation and beyond.
In the closed-door meeting, Benedict told more than a dozen Muslim leaders that he understood the "great importance" Muslims placed on the religious dimension of life and emphasized the importance of values shared by both the religions in an increasingly secularized society.
Aiman Mazyek, the chairman of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, said he welcomed Benedict's message of increased Muslim-Christian dialogue as an "important and friendly sign."
In Erfurt, the pope concentrated on issues of Germany's divided past, both spiritual and political.
Luther was ordained in this town in eastern Germany. He lived in Erfurt's Augustine monastery as a monk before his protest against the Roman Catholic Church in 1517.
Also a professor of theology, he was excommunicated by the pope for disputing church tenets and sparked the Protestant Reformation that led to the creation of the Lutheran church. The split among German Christians remains a point of dispute to this day.
Some Catholics and Lutherans have called for a joint commission to examine the Reformation and Luther's excommunication.
After a morning in the city, Benedict is to travel to a small chapel nestled deep in the former East Germany, where he will honor those Catholics who helped resist communist rule.
Benedict's visit also has drawn protesters, many opposed to the Catholic church's views on homosexuality, abortion and other issues. About 9,000 people protested in downtown Berlin on Thursday and more protests were planned in Erfurt.
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