VATICAN CITY (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI gave his approval Wednesday to the creation of a permanent Catholic-Muslim interfaith forum that will hold it inaugural meeting this November in Rome, the Vatican said.
The initiative was sparked by the pope’s own controversial speech at a German university in 2006, where he appeared to link Islam with violence.
The dispute inspired by his remarks led last year to 138 leading Muslim scholars calling for a dialogue with the leader of the Roman Catholic church, and eventually to today’s accord.
The first summit of the “Catholic-Muslim forum” will be on November 4-6 in Rome, on the theme of “the love of God, love of neighbour,” according to a joint statement issued after the meeting between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a delegation of the so-called Group of 138.
November’s meeting will be attended personally by the pope, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran confirmed in a statement. The Muslim side will be represented Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, president of Britain’s Muslim Academic Trust.
A second follow-up conference has already been scheduled for 2010, to be held in a Muslim country, Ali Aref Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said.
The structure put in place Wednesday could also be activated in case of a crisis such as the global uproar that followed the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in 2006, according to Nayed.
Nayed told a press conference in Rome he was delighted with the “incredibly positive response” to the Group of 138′s call for dialogue, which had already led to a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury amongst others.
The goal is to “return to the roots of the faith and what we have in common” — far from the image of violence too often attached to Islam, Nayed said.
Wednesday’s Vatican meeting was held “in a very positive and welcoming atmosphere,” he added.
Questioned about the aftermath of the crisis caused by the Regensburg University speech by the pope, Nayef said it still “burnt strongly in many parts of the Muslim world”.
The speech “was a mistake, but everyone makes mistakes … the important thing is to correct them,” he said.
In November the pope will meet all 48 participants, who will debate the theological and spiritual foundations of the chosen theme as well as “human dignity and mutual respect.”
November’s ground-breaking summit will take place just over a year after 138 Muslim leaders from various sects from 43 countries issued an open letter to Christian churches urging peace and dialogue.
The move in October 2007, sponsored by Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal, came one year after a speech by the pope at Regensberg University in Germany angered some Muslim leaders for using a quote that seemed to equate Islam with violence.
The 138 signatories have now swelled to 241.
The Catholic Church remains reluctant to engage in a profound theological debate with Islam without first clarifying such issues as complete religious freedom for Christians in Muslim countries.