The right of Christians to build churches in Islamic countries will be among the topics discussed at a ground-breaking summit between Muslim and Catholic leaders in the Vatican this week.
The unprecedented Catholic-Muslim forum has been convened to rebuild bridges between the two faiths after Pope Benedict XVI caused outrage by linking Islam with violence during a speech in 2006.
The Pope had to apologise for the speech in Regensburg, Germany, after quoting a medieval text which attacked some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed and implied that Islam was inherently violent.
His remarks, which he said were taken out of context and did not represent his opinion, sparked violence in Muslim countries.
The Muslim delegation arrived for the three day forum on Monday and will meet the Pontiff on Thursday.
The leader of the Catholic delegation, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, said Muslims were allowed to build mosques in Christian countries so it was only right that Islamic nations should reciprocate by allowing the construction of churches.
“If Muslims have places of worship in Europe then it is normal that the reverse should be true in societies where Muslims are the majority,” Cardinal Tauran told the French Catholic newspaper La Croix.
An agreement on reciprocity was not a precondition for the talks, however, which would offer “real glimmers of hope” and open “a new chapter in the long history” of dialogue between the two faiths, he added.
In response to the anger prompted by the Pope’s Regensburg address, 138 Muslim scholars and religious leaders last year wrote him a letter warning that the future of the planet depended on Muslims and Christians making peace with each other.
The delegation of 24 Muslim leaders is led by the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, and includes an Iranian ayatollah and an American woman academic specialising in Islamic studies.
British members of the delegation include Dr Anas Al-Shaikh-Ali, chairman of the UK Association of Muslim Social Scientists, and Sheikh Dr Abdal Hakim Murad Winter, lecturer in Islamic studies at Cambridge University.
The closed-door discussions at the Vatican will focus on Tuesday on “God’s love” and Wednesday on “loving your neighbour,” a theme that touches on two Vatican priorities, human rights and religious freedom.
The talks will also try to identify the reasons for the tension between Christianity and Islam, a senior Vatican figure said.
“It would be interesting to see whether these tensions are shaped by ideological, political … and exploitative factors on both sides, rather than by actual differences,” said Pier Luigi Celata, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.
The summit follows an interfaith conference in Cambridge last month and a meeting between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, in which they agreed to strengthen dialogue between Islamic and Christian universities.