Pope Benedict is to hold an unprecedented meeting with Islamic leaders and scholars in Rome in November following an agreement reached on Wednesday to establish a regular official dialogue between the two religions.
Theological and social issues, as well as terrorism, will be discussed at the Catholic-Muslim conference which is to be called “Love of God, Love of Neighbour”.
It will bring together 24 religious leaders and scholars from each side. A second forum is to take place after two years, possibly in the Middle East.
The “Catholic-Muslim Forum”, came out of an initiative launched by prominent Muslims in reaction to the bitter fallout that followed the pope’s 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany.
Aref Ali Nayed, coordinator of “A Common Word” praised what he called the Vatican’s positive moves towards Islam, and said the pope’s Regensburg speech, which offended many Muslims, was simply a “spectacular mistake” that humans make.
Christian and Muslim scholars welcomed the breakthrough in this week’s talks with delight.
Prominent theologians from both faiths see the Muslim initiative, which brings together leading figures from the different strands of Sunni and Shia Islam, as a vitally important movement to strengthen mainstream Islam against extremism.
The talks had difficult moments, one participant said, but the Vatican showed a willingness to engage and bridges were built.
In a joint statement they announced that the November “seminar” would bring together 24 religious leaders and scholars from each side. Composition of the Muslim delegation has not been finalised. A second forum is to take place after two years, possibly in the Middle East.
Theological and social issues, as well as terrorism, will be discussed at the conference which is to be called “Love of God, Love of Neighbour”.
The common statement said Pope Benedict would “receive” the participants but gave no details. Mr Nayed told reporters he hoped there would be “parity and symmetry” given to the roles of the pontiff and the Muslim leaders. One party should not be seen to dominate, he said. He expected the Forum to lead to regular, even weekly, communications between the two sides, possibly acting as a kind of ”hotline” to try to defuse crises, such as the Danish cartoon controversy.
Muslim speakers at the press conference stressed the need for finding allies in each other in facing oppression and cruelty. One denounced Osama Bin Laden, leader of al Qaeda, and “neoconservatives” as “mad”. They also said this was far more than an academic project in that the teachings of “A Common Word”, with the endorsement of religious leaders, were being disseminated at the grass roots among mosques worldwide.
A Common Word is launching a similar initiative directed at leaders of the Jewish faith. Other conferences are to be held with Yale, Harvard and Princeton scholars in July and with the Anglican church in October.