President of the Lutheran World Federation Bishop Munib Younan (L)and Pope Francis attend an ecumenical event at the Malmo Arena on October 31, 2016 in Malmo, Sweden
Malmö (Sweden) (AFP) - Pope Francis and Lutheran leaders expressed deep regret Monday over the conflict between Catholics and Protestants during Christianity's nearly 500-year-old schism, calling for unity on the pontiff's landmark visit to Sweden.
The Argentine pope visited the southern cities of Malmo and nearby Lund for an oecumenical service marking the start of a year of celebrations for the Reformation -- the dramatic 1517 event that created a Protestant branch of Christianity which rebelled against papal rule.
"We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognising error and seeking forgiveness," Francis told a mass held in a church in Lund attended by Catholic and Lutheran leaders.
The event marks 50 years of reconciliatory dialogue between the Catholic Church and Lutheranism -- a Protestant branch that has traditionally been among the most fervent opponents to the Vatican's authority and teachings.
The popes of the 16th century spent huge amounts of time and energy trying to stifle or reverse the reforming wave launched by the German monk Martin Luther when he nailed his demands -- the "95 theses" -- to the door of a church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.
"With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life," Francis said.
"Nor can we be resigned to the division and distance that our separation has created between us," the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics said.
- 'Branches of the same vine' -
Ahead of the visit, the pope reiterated the importance he attaches to Christian unity at a time when both believers and belief itself are under pressure in many parts of the world.
"We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another," Francis said.
In a long sermon, Pastor Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, which organised the commemoration, also found that this "historic moment" was an opportunity for Catholics and Lutherans "to distance themselves from a past tarnished by conflict and division".
"We acknowledge that there is much more that unites us than that which separates us. We are branches of the same vine," he said.
But Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan pointed to a persistent doctrinal disagreement related the Eucharist, a rite considered sacred, as Catholics cannot take communion in a Protestant church.
Younan told AFP he would like to see Catholics and Lutherans authorised to take communion together -- something currently ruled out by Vatican doctrine.
"Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity," Helga Haugland Byfuglien, Bishop of the Church of Norway said.
"This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours,which we wish to advance," she added.
"We are praying that one day we may celebrate the holy communion together, this is very important for me," Younan said, while stressing the importance of accentuating common ground.
"In this time when extremism is devouring all the world globally, we are giving an example to the whole world that this is a common commemoration despite our disagreement in the past, a sign of unity and a sign that religion is no more a problem."
- Christians in Aleppo -
Monday's programme also included an event in a stadium in Malmo that was addressed by the bishop of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo. It ended with a mass prayer for peace in the war-torn country.
Antoine Audo, bishop of the Chaldean Catholic church in besieged Aleppo, warned the Christian community in the Syrian city is on the verge of extinction.
"The majority of hospitals are destroyed and 80 percent of doctors have left Aleppo. In Syria three million children do not attend school," he said. "Our sadness is seeing a rich and beautiful Christianity about to disappear."
Francis described Aleppo as "a city brought to its knees by war, a place where even the most fundamental rights are treated with contempt and trampled underfoot."
"Each day the news tells us about the unspeakable suffering caused by the Syrian conflict, which has now lasted more than five years," the pope said.
The charity wings of the two churches also sealed a cooperation accord to help migrants around the world.
"I would like to thank all those governments that assist refugees, displaced persons and asylum-seekers," Francis said in Sweden, which has welcomed the highest amount of refugees per capita in Europe.
"For everything done to help these persons in need of protection is a great gesture of solidarity and a recognition of their dignity," he said.