-

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI made a new call for religious dialogue Thursday to paper over the cracks following remarks last month that angered Muslims, a Vatican statement said.

Speaking to the new Belgian ambassador to the Vatican, Franck De Coninck, he said that "the arrival of more and more immigrants and the increase of communities of different origins and religions make dialogue between cultures and religions absolutely necessary."

The pope said he had stressed this during his recent trip to Bavaria, where a speech he made at the university of Regensburg sparked demonstrations in Muslim countries after he appeared to link Islam with violence.

He said later that he regretted the offence his comment had given, but did not explicitly apologise for or retract it.

He said Thursday that immigrants should be welcomed in a manner that respected their dignity and religious convictions, calling for a policy of integration while avoiding exaggerated nationalism and xenophobia.

On Sunday the pope had sent his "cordial greetings" to the world's Muslims on Eid al-Fitr, the feast day ending the holy month of Ramadan.

And on Friday the Vatican called for mutual respect between Christians and Muslims, in a message from the Church's top official for inter-faith dialogue.

The pope has been stepping up his gestures towards Muslims in the wake of his Regensburg speech and ahead of his visit to Turkey at the end of November, his first trip to a Muslim majority country since he took office.

But the head of the Catholic Church in Italy, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, explicitly linked Islamic radicalism to terrorism at a church conference in Verona on Friday, while stressing "the duty to build peace."

"The challenge that international terrorism represents ... is only one aspect of a much wider problem that one can sum up in the religious, social and political revival of Islam and the determination to be new protagonists on the world stage which is shared, at least partially, by Muslim people," he said.

10/26/2006 15:04 GMT

Copyright © 2006