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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Pope finding common ground with Muslims

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 Muslims.

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.

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 Mr. Hendi, who also teaches Islamic studies and interfaith dialogue at Georgetown.

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.

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 Mr. Kalin, a Turkish
professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown and in Ankara.

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 Mr. Roucou, a fluent Arabic speaker.
“It isn’t faith on one side and reason on the other anymore.”

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.”

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

Mr. 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.”

his speech at the Amman mosque, Mr. 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.

©Thomson Reuters 2009