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Muslims to give pope what he wants

Pope Benedict XVI got off on the wrong foot last year when he delivered an address about the role reason might play in driving interfaith dialogue. Garnering the most attention were his inflammatory opening lines, which quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor’s criticism of the Prophet Muhammad. The pope contended that listeners misunderstood his intent: to encourage interfaith dialogue. But more than 100 Muslim leaders from around the world have shown they did not miss the pope’s point after all.

At the National Press Club on Thursday, 138 Muslim clerics, theologians and academics are expected to unveil a letter delivered this week to the pontiff and 25 other Christian leaders highlighting what theological notions the two faiths have in common and how they can work together. (The letter will be posted as soon as it is released to the media.)

Experts tout the document as a historic display of unity among Muslims who lack the centralized authorities and institutions that make organized dialogue easier.

The unprecedented initiative falls on the anniversary of an open letter to the pontiff issued by more than three dozen Muslim clerics in response to his remarks in September 2006 at Regensburg University. The pope had quoted the Byzantine emperor as saying, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Scott Alexander, director of Catholic-Muslim Studies at the Catholic Theological Union, said Thursday’s letter builds on the momentum of the original communique, which aimed to clarify for the pope several of his points. Both letters grew out of a summit held one month after the pope’s remarks.

“The significance of this initiative is that there is no one institution in the Muslim world that speaks for all or most Muslims the way there is in Roman Catholic Christianity,” Alexander said. “What is extraordinary and exciting is that the Muslim community is thinking of creative ways to organize itself so it can effectively participate in dialogue on a global scale.”

In 2009, the Catholic Theological Union will host another initiative that grew out of the summit. The conference will focus on how a Christian majority can support Muslims as minorities in the West and how a Muslim majority can do likewise for the Christian minority in the Muslim world.

Alexander said he does not understand why the pope opened his speech with the quotes, which generated much “anxiety and disappointment” in the Muslim world. But, he said, the early stages of interfaith dialogue often spark misunderstanding. He said the announcement anticipated on Thursday demonstrates a positive outcome and shows that goodwill can triumph after all.

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