VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI has responded to a letter from 138 Muslim scholars by inviting a group of them to meet with him and with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
The papal response, released Nov. 29, came in a letter to Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, president of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman and architect of the Muslim scholars’ project.
The letter, signed Nov. 19 by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, said the pope wanted “to express his deep appreciation” for the statement of the Muslim scholars, “for the positive spirit which inspired the text and for the call for a common commitment to promoting peace in the world.”
The statement, originally signed by 138 Muslim scholars but later endorsed by dozens of others, was addressed to Pope Benedict and the heads of other Christian churches.
Titled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” the text was released in early October and called for new efforts at Christian-Muslim dialogue based on the shared belief in the existence of one God, in God’s love for humanity and in people’s obligation to love one another.
In the Vatican’s response, Cardinal Bertone said Pope Benedict wanted to meet the prince and a representative group of the signatories. At the same time, it said, there could be a meeting between the Muslim scholars and officials of the council for dialogue with the assistance of representatives from the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Dates for the meetings still must be determined.
Aref Ali Nayed, a prime promoter of the Muslim scholars’ letter and one of its original signers, told Catholic News Service he had no doubt the papal invitation would be accepted.
“There is a theological and moral principle in Islam that according to the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, when you are invited to something you should go,” he said.
“It should not be a photo opportunity, but a real discussion with the pope and our scholars,” he said. “The scholars that signed the letter are theologians and jurists; they see the pope not just as the leader of 1 billion Catholics, but as a scholar in his own right.”
Ali Nayed said he hoped the two meetings would be occasions for “a deep theological reflection on many matters which we can build upon for the future.”
Writing to the prince, Cardinal Bertone said, “Without ignoring or downplaying our differences as Christians and Muslims, we can and, therefore, should look to what unites us, namely, belief in the one God, the provident creator and universal judge, who at the end of time will deal with each person according to his or her actions.”
The cardinal said Pope Benedict “was particularly impressed by the attention given in the letter to the two-fold commandment to love God and one’s neighbor.”
At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict said there was “plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of fundamental moral values,” the cardinal wrote.
“Such common ground allows us to base dialogue on effective respect for the dignity of every human person, on objective knowledge of the religion of the other, on the sharing of religious experience and, finally, on common commitment to promoting mutual respect and acceptance among the younger generation,” Cardinal Bertone wrote.
When Christians and Muslims know and respect one another, he said, they can begin to work together to promote justice and peace throughout the world.
Some commentators have said Pope Benedict believes the primary topics for Christian-Muslim dialogue must be religious freedom and reciprocity in recognizing the rights of Christians and Muslims in countries where they are a minority
Ali Nayed said he was pleased Cardinal Bertone’s letter did not focus on religious freedom and reciprocity; in fact, the letter did not mention either topic.
“The pope is a respected theologian and scholar and to limit dialogue to just religious freedom and reciprocity is not a scholarly approach,” he said. “I believe the pope recognizes the sincerity of the Muslim initiative, and I believe he wants to go deeper than a diplomatic discourse on reciprocity.”
The scholar said the papal response and invitation are particularly important for letting Catholics know that dialogue with Muslims is important for him and for the church.
At the same time, he said, “the 138 scholars tried to set a good example for all Muslims.”
“It is very important for Muslim people to see enthusiasm for dialogue when there is so much tension around them and so many wars going on,” Ali Nayed said. “It is extremely important to have a sign of hope.”