Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders yesterday agreed that both religions should widen their two-way dialogue to involve Muslims in the wake of tensions over cartoons of the prophet Mohammad.

The formal recognition of the need to involve more Muslims in dialogue came in a statement signed by leading rabbis from Israel and Vatican officials at the end of a meeting in Rome.

In a clear reference to a wave of violence in the Muslim world over the publishing of the cartoons, the joint statement said any abuse of religious symbols "must be rejected and condemned" in order to advance humanity's common good.

"At the same time such abuses and the current tensions between civilisations demand of us to reach out beyond our own bilateral dialogue which has its unique compelling character," the statement said.

"Thus we believe that it is our duty to engage and involve the Muslim world and its leaders in respectful dialogue and cooperation," it said.

The signatories included five senior members of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews and seven from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

They also appealed to world leaders "to appreciate the essential potential of the religious dimension to help resolve conflicts and strife and call on them to support inter-religious dialogue to this end."

The cartoons, first published last year in a Danish newspaper and since reprinted in other European papers, sparked worldwide protests by Muslims who believe it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet.

Dozens have died in violence related to the protests from Africa to Asia.

Pope Benedict has condemned the cartoons, saying the world's religions and their symbols must be respected. But he also said violent protests against perceived offence were wrong.

The joint statement did not say how Jews and Catholics could enlarge their dialogue to include Muslims in their consultations.

Jews and Catholics have been involved in official dialogue since the end of the second Vatican Council in 1965 and the Vatican has maintained its own, mostly separate dialogue with Muslims through its council for inter-religious relations.

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