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Catholics and Muslims Pledge to Improve Links

VATICAN CITY — Catholic and Muslim leaders worked on Thursday to
deflate suspicion between their two faiths, pledging at a high-level
seminar here to work together to condemn terrorism, protect religious
freedom and fight poverty.

The meeting came a year after 138 Muslim leaders wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI
after he offended many Muslims by quoting a Byzantine emperor who
called some teachings of the Prophet Muhammad “evil and inhuman.” In
turn, top Vatican officials have worried about freedom of worship in majority-Muslim countries, as well as immigration that is turning Europe, which they define as a Christian continent, increasingly Muslim.

But
on Thursday both sides said they hoped that the seminar would open a
new and much-improved chapter in Catholic-Muslim relations, as the two
groups said they might establish a committee that could ease tensions
in any future crisis between the two religions.

“Let us resolve
to overcome past prejudices and to correct the often distorted images
of the other, which even today can create difficulties in our
relations,” Benedict told the Muslim delegation. He called the
gathering “a clear sign of our mutual esteem and our desire to listen
respectfully to one another.”

Addressing the pope on behalf of the Muslim delegation, Seyyed Hossein Nasr of Iran, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University
in Washington, said that throughout history, “various political forces”
of both Christians and Muslims had carried out violence.

“Certainly we cannot claim that violence is the monopoly of only one religion,” he said.

The
three-day forum brought together nearly 30 Catholic clerics and
scholars, led by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the head of the Pontifical
Council for Interreligious Dialogue; and as many Muslim clerics and
scholars, led by Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and
Herzegovina based in Sarajevo.

The meeting “exceeded our
expectations,” said Ingrid Mary Mattson, the director of the Islamic
Society of North America and a professor of Islamic studies at the
Hartford Seminary.

“The atmosphere was very good, very frank,” said Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University. A celebrated intellectual in Europe, Mr. Ramadan
in 2004 was denied a visa to the United States on the grounds that he
had donated to two European charities that the State Department later
said gave money to Hamas.

Mr.
Ramadan said the thorniest questions the group tackled were “apostasy”
and “freedom of worship in a minority situation.” Some Muslims believe
it is apostasy to convert out of Islam.

The 15-point declaration the group issued on Thursday did not address issues of conversion.

It
called on Catholics and Muslims to renounce “oppression, aggressive
violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of
religion.”

And it said religious minorities should be “entitled
to their own places of worship, and their founding figures and symbols
they consider sacred should not be subjected to any form of mockery or
ridicule.”

In 2006, Muslims around the world protested, some violently, after a Danish newspaper printed cartoons of Muhammad.

One
participant, Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, called
the meeting “a first step” but said he hoped that the declaration would
“bear fruit.”

In recent years, Islamic militants in Kirkuk have
killed, kidnapped or forced Iraqi Christians to convert. Archbishop
Sako noted that in their homilies, “many imams are preaching against
infidels and crusaders,” and that “some simple people” believed that
this referred to all Christians.

He called on Muslim leaders to
publicize the declaration, with its assertion of shared
Christian-Muslim values. “This should be clarified, stated, given to
the media to teach people about it,” he said. “For us Christians living
in Muslim countries, that would be very, very helpful.”

The
Muslim delegation included representatives of Sunni and Shiite Islam,
as well as several converts and participants from North Africa,
Indonesia, the Philippines and Uganda.

It notably did not
include any participants from Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslim worship is
not tolerated and with which the Vatican has had strained ties. Two
Saudis were expected to attend, but had to cancel at the last minute
for health reasons, said Ibrahim Kalin of Turkey, a spokesman for the
Muslim delegation and a professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

Yet
in July, Cardinal Tauran and other Vatican officials attended an
interfaith dialogue organized by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in
Spain.

Participants in this week’s conference pledged to hold another dialogue in a Muslim country in 2010.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/07/world/europe/07pope.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin

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