Pope Benedict has taken a bold step toward greater understanding in this world by deciding to hold a meeting for Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders this year. The Vatican announced on the weekend the conference will be held in Rome in the spring.
It is a response to an open letter that 138 Muslim scholars from around the world sent to the Pope in October. That letter urged Christians and Muslims to look for common ground and pointed out that they believe in one God.
That letter itself developed out of what might be called a misunderstanding. Pope Benedict angered Muslims in various countries when he delivered a speech on faith and reason in September 2006. He cited a medieval text that described some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhummad as evil and inhuman.
The Pope then clarified his comments. He said he was not expressing his own opinion but was quoting from a source. He also expressed regret that his speech had caused hard feelings.
The idea of a broad meeting among major religious leaders is good for both symbolic and substantive reasons. It shows that people who believe in the same God can respect the views of those whose perspectives differ in their details. At a more substantive level, this meeting will enable those with open minds to truly learn more about the views of others.
Certainly the need for greater understanding is apparent. One merely needs to read a newspaper to see that, in general, people with different religious backgrounds have clashed in recent years. The uproar over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet serves as a case in point.
There will be, of course, some extremists who are not interested in understanding the views of others. This conference, however, is not for them. It is for those who want to understand — and surely the majority of people in all religions fall into that category.