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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Pope Benedict slowly learns dialogue with Muslims

JERUSALEM, May 14 – Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his
landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his
current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with

While media attention has focused on Jewish criticism of his speech
at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict’s speeches to Muslims
have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with
Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.

This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many
Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and
irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it
marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world’s two largest
faiths get along better.

Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at a Catholic university in
Washington, said Benedict’s use of Muslim terminology showed “where the
Holy See is heading and where it has its heart.

“It wants to reach out to Muslims,” said Hendi, who also teaches Islamic studies and interfaith dialogue at Georgetown.

“He’s learning the right words, the ones they can hear,” said Rabbi
Burton Visotzky, a professor at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary
who is active in dialogue with Muslims.

Before becoming pope in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger thought
discussing theology with Muslims was all but impossible because Islam
sees the Koran as the literal word of God and rejects the scriptural
analysis Christians and Jews do.

In the Regensburg speech, this view led to the suggestion that Christianity blended faith and reason while Islam didn’t.


“There was an implication that Islam had no place for reason,” said
Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the “Common Word” group of Islamic
scholars who launched a new theological dialogue between Muslims and
Christians after Regensburg.

“The conclusion was that violence comes out of the Islamic tradition
almost necessarily,” said Kalin, a Turkish professor of Islamic studies
at Georgetown and in Ankara.

Since its start in 2007, the Common Word group has argued the two
faiths share the core values of love of God and love of neighbour. It
has organised several conferences to help each side see how the other
understands and expresses these values.

Rev. Christophe Roucou, the French Catholic Church’s liaison with
Muslims, said the main shift in Benedict’s thinking was to drop his
earlier analysis of Islam as a faith weak in reason.

“Now he says Muslims and Christians can use faith and reason
together,” said Roucou, a fluent Arabic speaker. “It isn’t faith on one
side and reason on the other anymore.”

Benedict signalled that change at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman
last Saturday when he said Christians and Muslims should work together
“to cultivate for the good, in the context of faith and truth, the vast
potential of human reason.”

He described God as “merciful and compassionate,” borrowing a
classic phrase from the Koran. Kalin described this Amman address as
“very positive” and remarked approvingly: “It’s a long way from the
Regensburg speech.”

At Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock on Tuesday, Benedict echoed the
Common Word’s theme by telling Palestinian Muslim leaders that
“undivided love for the One God and charity towards ones neighbour”
were the “fulcrum around which all else turns.”

He also called God “the infinite source of justice and mercy,” two
values Muslims associate with God as naturally as Christians equate God
with love.


Visotzky said Benedict was not betraying his faith by using terms
dear to Islam. “He can justify that language of justice and mercy
straight from the prophets of the Old Testament,” he said. “So it’s his
language too.”

The rabbi credited Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal, a
leading figure in the Common Word group, with seeking a way for the
world’s two largest faiths “to learn to talk to one another as opposed
to offending one another inadvertently.”

In his speech at the Amman mosque, Ghazi reminded Benedict of the
“hurt” Muslims felt after the Regensburg speech and said they
appreciated his later statement that he did not agree with the
Byzantine emperor he had quoted criticising Islam.

The Vatican was initially cool to the Common Word’s call for
dialogue, in contrast to some other Christian churches that promptly
embraced it, and only held extensive discussions with group leaders at
a Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome last November.

The official scepticism melted and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head
of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, even said the
group could become a “favoured channel” in Catholicism’s dialogue with
Islam. – Reuters