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Pope Francis and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI have called for Jerusalem to be a “symbol of peaceful coexistence” between religions, in what appeared to be a criticism of Israel and its occupation of the contested city’s eastern sector.

On the first day of his visit to the North African country, the pontiff on Saturday issued a joint statement with the Moroccan leader.

The two leaders said Jerusalem was "common patrimony of humanity and especially the followers of the three monotheistic religions".

"The specific multi-religious character, the spiritual dimension and the particular cultural identity of Jerusalem... must be protected and promoted," they said in the declaration released by the Vatican as the pontiff visited Rabat.

The Moroccan king chairs a committee created by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to safeguard and restore Jerusalem's religious, cultural and architectural heritage.

The joint statement came after US President Donald Trump's landmark recognition of the disputed city as capital of Israel, which sparked anger across the Muslim world, especially from Palestinians who see Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The spiritual leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics was invited by King Mohammed VI for the sake of "interreligious dialogue", according to Moroccan authorities.

Improving relations with other religions has been a priority for the Argentine pontiff, whose papacy has been marred by clergy facing a wave of child sex abuse allegations.

Meanwhile, he praised Morocco for rejecting extremism, saying it was “essential to oppose fanaticism”. The Sunni kingdom of 36 million people advocates for religious freedom and has made significant efforts to combat terrorism after bombings in Casablanca in 2003.

He defended “freedom of conscience” and “religious freedom” as a fundamental right for human beings.

He stressed the need for "appropriate preparation of future religious guides", ahead of meeting trainee imams later on Saturday.

Catholics are a tiny minority Morocco, where 99 per cent of the population is Muslim. The king is revered across West Africa as "commander of the faithful".

Speaking at the ceremony at the Tour (or tower) Hassan mosque and nearby mausoleum in Rabat, the monarch also voiced opposition to radicalism.

"That which terrorists have in common is not religion, it's precisely the ignorance of religion. It's time that religion is no longer an alibi... for this ignorance, for this intolerance," he said.
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