Pope Benedict XVI climaxed an unprecedented Muslim-Christian conference of clergy and scholars in the Vatican yesterday by urging both religions to defend common values, and he called for greater freedom of worship for non-Muslims in the Islamic world.
“Dear friends, let us unite our efforts, animated by good will, in order to overcome all misunderstanding and disagreements,” the German-born pontiff said in a speech to a delegation from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Western countries, who had an audience with Benedict in the Apostolic Palace.
“Let us resolve to overcome past prejudices and to correct the often-distorted images of the other, which even today can create difficulties in our relations,” Benedict said at the close of the three-day event.
The conference came two years after the pope outraged many Muslims by indirectly linking Islam to violence in a speech he made at the German city of Regensburg.
Among the Catholic delegates were Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the head of the Vatican’s council on inter-religious dialogue, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, together with Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq.
“There is a great and vast field in which we can act together in defending and promoting the moral values which are part of our common heritage,” the pope told his guests, who were joined by the 29 Catholic scholars and experts who took part in the closed-door discussions.
The conference included 29 Muslims.
In a joint statement the two delegations said that “religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices.”
In Saudi Arabia, Christian symbols are prohibited and Muslims who convert to Christianity face the death penalty.
At a public debate in Rome’s Gregorian University, a spokesman for an organization of Christian immigrants from the Middle East cautioned that the exodus of persecuted Christians from Iraq to Syria, Jordan and elsewhere means that the Christians of the Middle East “are becoming an endangered species.”
Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Muslim delegation and an assistant professor at Georgetown University, said in reply that the plight of Christians in the Middle East was “a very small genocide” compared with the killings of Muslims in the Bosnian war in the early 1990s.
Mr. Kalin said Iraqi Christians were the victims of “American and Israeli pressure” and the invasion of Iraq.
Asked by an Italian reporter whether they subscribed to the freedom of individuals to change their religion, Mr. Kalin said “many Muslim jurists are trying to re-interpret [Muslim teaching on] apostasy.”