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Pope rejects idea of joint communion

Pope Benedict XVI disappointed Protestants seeking common ground with Catholics on Friday by stressing differences between the two groups, as he continued a four-day journey in his native Germany.

The Evangelical Church of Germany, or EKD, an umbrella group of German Evangelical and Lutheran denominations, had raised the issue of joint communion for married couples of different Christian denominations.

Speaking in this eastern city, the Catholic leader rebuffed expectations by saying that one can't "think through or negotiate" faith.

"I'd like to point out that this represents a political misunderstanding of faith and ecumenism," Benedict said in a speech to the joint-faith group in the St. Augustine cloister, where Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, began his monastic studies in 1505.

But in a sign of how far relations have improved between the two churches in recent decades, the pope praised Luther for his "deep passion and driving force" in his beliefs. But he didn't announce any concrete steps to achieve greater unity among Christians, as some had hoped.

"In the run-up to this papal visit, there has been various talk of an ecumenical gesture that could be expected of it," he said. Yet rather than comparing religious tendencies, unity requires "intensified thinking and living" in one's own faith.

Benedict arrived Thursday in Berlin, where he met with Chancellor Angela Merkel and warned in a speech to Parliament that Europe risks falling into "culturelessness" that invites extremism, such as Nazism.

While the meeting between the 84-year-old pontiff and leaders of Germany's Protestant denominations was "open and friendly," Bishop Johannes Friedrich, head of the United Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Germany, said he would have wanted to see closer ties. He also expressed disappointment that Benedict declined to discuss the Reformation Jubilee in 2017, five centuries after Luther issued the 95 theses that represented his movement's rupture from the Catholic Church.

Nikolaus Schneider, chairman of the EKD, lauded the pope's appearance, while adding that "our heart burns for more," according to the group's website.

Later, Benedict met with German victims of sexual abuse by priests and expressed "deep compassion and regret" at the suffering of those abused by members of the clergy, the Vatican said.

Benedict has been accused by victims groups and their lawyers of being part of systematic practice of cover-up by church hierarchy for pedophile priests, in his earlier roles as an archbishop in Germany and later at the helm of the Vatican morals office.

The Vatican said in a statement following Friday's meeting that the pope was "moved and deeply shaken" and is close to the victims.

The pope has had similar meetings on trips to the United States, Australia, Malta and Britain, all hit by the worldwide sex abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church over the past decades.