Papal officials, Islamic leaders and scholars began a historic summit in the Vatican yesterday, aimed at laying the foundations for better understanding between Catholics and Muslims, and averting future crises in relations between the world’s biggest religions.
The three-day meeting is a direct outcome of the Muslim reaction to the Pope’s controversial address in 2006 in which he appeared to link Islam with violence and irrationality. Last year, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics, dismayed by the violence the speech had provoked and fearing a “clash of civilisations”, issued a manifesto stressing the values shared by Islam and Christianity.
The Common Word initiative also called for a new dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders. The meeting that began behind doors in the Vatican is the third to be held as a result.
Members of the Common Word group met Protestant representatives in the US in July and Anglicans in Britain last month. But the first seminar of the Catholic-Muslim forum is unquestionably the most important encounter so far and in many respects, the trickiest.
Baptised Roman Catholics account for just over half the world’s two billion Christians. Islam has 1.3 billion followers.
In an interview with the French Catholic daily newspaper La Croix, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, leader of the Vatican’s delegation, said it represented the start of a “new chapter in a long history”. The line taken by the Common Word group largely coincides with Pope Benedict’s view that the most fruitful way forward is an “ethical dialogue”, to single out and build on principles common to both sides.
But Vatican insiders say the German pontiff is impatient with the polite but, as he sees it, ultimately unproductive exchanges between theologians of different faiths and, in the case of Islam, has specific issues he wants to see tackled urgently. Chief among these is what the Vatican terms “reciprocity” – the freedom of Christians in the Muslim world to worship with the same ease as Muslims do in the west.
The agenda for the three-day conference reflects the approaches of both sides. The first day will be given over to theological discussion of the conference theme: Love of God, Love of Neighbour.