In a ground breaking move Pope Benedict XVI has approved the setting up of a permanent Catholic-Muslim Forum – the first of its kind – which is to hold its inaugural summit meeting in the Vatican in November.
The historic move follows three days of talks in Rome between Vatican officials and a Muslim delegation representing 138 Muslim scholars who last year wrote an open letter to the Pope and other Christian leaders calling for dialogue, a move inspired by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal of Jordan.
The Muslim initiative was a reponse to the Pope’s controversial speech at Regensburg University in his native Germany in 2006, where he appeared to describe Islam as inherently violent and irrational by quoting a Byzantine Emperor. He later said he had been misunderstood, and prayed alongside an imam at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul during a visit to Turkey.
The first summit of the Catholic-Muslim Forum will take place on 4-6 November, the Vatican said, with nearly fifty delegates, and will be addressed by the pontiff. The chosen theme is “Love of God, Love of Neighbour.”
A follow up conference is to be held in a Muslim country yet to be decided, according to Ali Aref Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman. He said the response to the Group of 138′s call for dialogue had been “incredibly positive”. The aim was to “return to the roots of faith and what we have in common”.
He said resentment over the Pope’s Regensburg remarks was still “burning strongly in many parts of the Muslim world”. The speech had been a mistake, “but everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to correct them. This whole initiative is about healing. It is about healing the wounds of a very pained and, in many ways, destroyed world”. He said the Muslim majority was not represented by a “loud, violent and cruel minority”.
He appealed for the release of Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, who was kidnapped last week in Iraq, declaring: “We take this opportunity to remind our fellow Muslims that it is against the Prophet’s teaching to even touch religious leaders and monks and priests. Religious leaders and religious symbols must be respected.”
The first day of the November summit will focus on Christian and Muslim teachings on the obligation to love both God and one’s neighbour, and the second on “human dignity and mutual respect”. The third day will be a general discussion open to the public.
Last week Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter Religious Dialogue, attended an inter-faithconference in Cairo sponsored by Al Azhar University, seen as the intellectual centre of Sunni Islam. In a gesture toward Muslim sensitivities he issued a joint statement with Sheikh Abdel Fattah Alaam, chairman of the Al-Azhar Dialogue Committee, “strongly condemning” the “re-publication of offensive cartoons and the rising number of attacks against Islam and its Prophet”.
A number of Danish dailies last week reprinted a cartoon featuring the Prophet Mohammed’s head with a turban in the form of a bomb with a lit fuse. The joint statement condemned “violence, extremism and terrorism” in general, and said freedom of expression should “not be used as a pretext for offending religions, convictions, religious symbols and everything that is considered sacred.”
Asked why the joint document had failed to call on Islamic rulers to make a reciprocal gesture by respecting the religious beliefs and rights of Christians in the Middle East, Father Andrea Pacini, a Vatican expert on Islam, said the issue was “delicate”. He said the picture was “mixed”, with some Arab countries restricting or forbidding Christian worship but others allowing the construction of new churches.
Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, deputy head of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, who attended this week’s talks in Rome, said he hoped Muslims would join the Pope in “deeper dialogue on doctrine, theology and the character of religions in today’s world”. All religious leaders must “isolate extremists and avoid the wrong use of religion”, he said.
Ali Aref Nayed said he realised that Pope Benedict was exercised about restrictions on religious freedom faced by Christians in Muslim countries, but said he hoped the Catholic-Muslim Forum would not turn into “an exchange of grievances”. It should instead be a gathering in which both sides could support religious freedom “for all people”.
In a written statement Abdal Hakim Murad Winter, director of Britain’s Muslim Academic Trust, who took part in this week’s preparatory talks, said those who believed in the one God had a responsibility to reach out to each other.
There was a widespread sense in the West “that religion brings discord rather than healing to the world,” he wrote, but “the reality of engagement between believers of different traditions is overwhelmingly one of conviviality”. Extremists on all sides obscured this “by using language of exclusion and contempt”.
Other Muslim delegates to Rome this week were Ibrahim Kalin, director of the SETA Foundation in Ankara and Sohail Nakhooda, editor of Islamica Magazine in Jordan. The Vatican participants were Cardinal Tauran, Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, secretary of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, head of the Council’s section for relations with Muslims, Father Miguel Ayuso Guixot, President of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, and Father Christian Troll, an expert on Islam at the Pontifical Gregorian University.