VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Benedict has accepted an unprecedented call by Muslim scholars for dialogue between Christians and Islam, inviting them for meetings in Vatican City, the Vatican said on Thursday.
Some 138 Muslim scholars wrote to the German-born Pontiff and other Christian leaders last month, saying “the very survival of the world itself” may be depend on dialogue.
The Pontiff, who as head of the Catholic Church represents more than half of the world’s two billion Christians, praised the scholars’ “call for a common commitment to promoting peace”.
“Without ignoring or downplaying our differences as Christians and Muslims, we can and therefore should look to what unites us, namely the belief in one God,” the Vatican wrote in a message signed by Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone.
The Vatican letter was dated November 19, but only released on Thursday. Most other Christian leaders had already responded positively, and although the Vatican’s upbeat reply was expected, it was not a given.
The Vatican’s top official for relations with Islam — Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran — had expressed doubt both faiths could agree on such issues as God, love and how to read sacred scripture. This led to concern the opportunity could be lost.
“The Vatican response is very important and we are very happy that it is positive,” Aref Ali Nayed, one of the signatories and senior adviser to the Cambridge Interfaith Program in Britain, told Reuters.
He noted that many Catholic Islam experts had already hailed the initiative and that a positive response by Yale University Divinity School had been endorsed by about 300 Christian leaders of various churches in the United States.
The Pontiff agreed to receive Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad bin Talal, head of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought that is coordinating the initiative, and a small group of signatories to discuss the issue.
“At the same time, a working meeting could be organized between your delegation and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue” and other Catholic Islam experts, Bertone wrote.
The meeting will be a milestone for Pope Benedict, who sparked Muslim protests last year with a speech hinting Islam was violent and irrational.
He repeatedly expressed regret for the reaction to the speech, but stopped short of a clear apology sought by Muslims.
The Pontiff noted the “positive spirit” of the Muslim scholars’ letter, which quoted from the Koran and the Bible to show both Christianity and Islam considered love of God as their greatest commandment and love of neighbor as the second.
“Such common ground allows us to base dialogue on effective respect for the dignity of every human person, on objective knowledge of the religion to the other,” the Vatican wrote.
Catholic experts on Islam say there is still so much misunderstanding between Christians and the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims about what each other believed that a serious dialogue about them would help improve relations.
If it comes about, the Christian-Muslim dialogue could also pose challenges to Christians, who have a wide variety of views about Islam and the Muslim world would have to work together in responding to the Muslim scholars’ initiative.
London Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor called last week for a meeting of all Christian leaders to discuss issues facing them, but the Vatican was not enthusiastic, Church officials said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; Editing by Dominic Evans)