Pope Offers ‘Working Meeting’ With Muslims

Vatican City

In response to a letter from Muslim leaders seeking better relations with the Christian world, Pope Benedict XVI Nov. 29 invited those leaders to the Vatican for a “working meeting” on interreligious dialogue.

Writing on behalf of the pope, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, expressed Benedict’s “gratitude” and “deep appreciation” for an open letter that 138 Muslim scholars and clerics sent to the pope on Oct. 13.

That letter invoked the common principles of “love of the One God, and love of the neighbor” as the ultimate basis for peace between Muslims and Christians. Bertone’s reply acknowledged and reaffirmed those points.

“Without ignoring or downplaying our differences as Christians and Muslims, we can and therefore should look to what unites us, namely, belief in the one God,” the cardinal wrote.

Bertone noted that Benedict was “particularly impressed by the attention given [by the Muslim letter writers] to the twofold commandment to love God and one’s neighbor.”

Dated Nov. 19 but published only Nov. 29, Bertone’s letter was addressed to Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, a signatory of the Oct. 13 letter.

The cardinal invited Ghazi and a “restricted group of signatories” of the prince’s choosing to visit the Vatican, for both an audience with Benedict and a “working meeting” with Vatican experts on interreligious dialogue.

“It is significant that the pope does not simply engage with the letter of the 138 in an impersonal way at the level of ideas, but invites the parties to meet and proposes the beginnings of a process,” said Jesuit Fr. Daniel A. Madigan, a visiting fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.

According to John L. Esposito, director of Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Benedict’s proposal is “important but only a starting point.”

The Vatican’s response to the Muslim initiative had been long awaited. Several Protestant leaders immediately welcomed the Oct. 13 letter but Benedict’s silence drew a complaint from a group of Muslim leaders in a late-October open communiqué.

Commenting on the pope’s letter the day after it was issued, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said that by inviting a varied group of Muslim scholars to meet with him, Pope Benedict XVI has opened the possibility for a higher-level dialogue between Catholic and Muslim leaders.

The newspaper quoted German Jesuit Fr. Christian Troll, a scholar of Islam, who said that the 138 scholars represent a wide and diverse portion of the world’s Muslim community, and the fact that they were able to write to the pope together is important.

The letter, Troll said, is an initiative that “the church can only look favorably upon because it needs a skilled dialogue with the non-Christian world.”

The former president of the Gregorian institute promoting interreligious dialogue and the study of Islam, Madigan, said, “It is very important that there has now been a clear acknowledgment of the approaches made by these Muslim scholars.”

Madigan said the affirmation in the papal response that “we can and, therefore, should look to what unites us” counters an all-too-common attitude claiming “we should look first at what divides us.”

While the pope said the purpose of Catholic-Muslim dialogue is to promote “justice and peace in society and throughout the world,” said Madigan, “the theological aspect of this is essential because our visions of justice, peace and society are all formed by our belief — we cannot avoid talking about it.”

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007