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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Countries that act unilaterally on the world stage undermine the authority of the United Nations and weaken the broad consensus needed to confront global problems, Pope Benedict said on Friday.
In a major speech to the U.N. General Assembly, the pope also said the international community sometimes had the duty to intervene when a country could not protect its own people from "grave and sustained violations of human rights."
The pope, who arrived from Washington on the second leg of a six-day U.S. trip, was only the third pontiff in history to address the General Assembly.
Speaking in French and English from the Assembly's green marble podium, he gave a wide-ranging address on issues such as globalization, human rights and the environment.
The international community must be "capable of responding to the demands of the human family through binding international rules," said the 81-year-old pope, who spoke after meeting privately with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
He said the notion of multilateral consensus was "in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world's problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community."
While Benedict did not mention any country, this appeared to refer to the United States, which led the 2003 invasion of Iraq despite a Security Council refusal to approve it.
The Vatican strongly opposed the recourse to war.
Benedict, who met U.S. President George W. Bush during his Washington visit, called for "a deeper search for ways of pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue, and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation."
In an apparent reference to the conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur, the pope said every state had the "primary duty" to protect its citizens from human rights violations and humanitarian crises but outside intervention was sometimes justified.
"If states are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments," he said.
He called human rights "the common language and ethical substratum of international relations," and added that promoting human rights was the best way to eliminate inequalities.
"Indeed, the victims of hardship and despair, whose human dignity is violated with impunity, become easy prey to the call to violence, and they can then become violators of peace," he said in an apparent reference to social causes of terrorism.
Benedict called for religious freedom to be protected against secularist views and against majority religions that sideline other faiths -- an apparent reference to Muslim states where some Christian minorities report discrimination.
"It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one's rights," he said.
Diplomats from some 200 states gave him a standing ovation when he ended his speech by reading the phrase "peace and prosperity" in the six official languages of the United Nations -- English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian.
Later, in the U.N. meditation room, he met U.N. staffers and wrote in the visitors' Golden Book a quote from the Prophet Isaiah: "Erit opus iustitiae pax" -- Latin for "Justice will bring about peace."
He stopped to touch a tattered U.N. flag that was flying at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad when a car bomb killed 22 people including 15 U.N. staff in 2003. Among the dead was the U.N. mission chief, Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Later on Friday, the German-born pope visited a New York synagogue to offer his greetings at the start of the Jewish Passover holiday. Rabbi Arthur Schneier wished him a "heartfelt Shalom" and praised his commitment to improving relations between Catholics and Jews.
He was also due to visit a Manhattan parish founded by German immigrants in 1873.
The pope arrived in Washington on Tuesday on his first visit to the United States as pontiff.
On Thursday, he held a surprise meeting with victims of sexual abuse by priests in a bid to heal scars from a scandal that deeply tarnished the Catholic Church in the United States.
Some three dozen protesters outside the U.N. headquarters held banners including one reading "Child sexual abuse is worse than terrorism."
(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip, Lou Charbonneau, Christine Kearney and Claudia Parsons; editing by Tom Heneghan and Mohammad Zargham)
For more on religion, see the Reuters religion blog FaithWorld at blogs.reuters.com/faithworld