Rome – While many Muslims remain hurt by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 remarks in Regensburg on Islam, the decision announced Wednesday to create a joint Catholic-Muslim Forum is a ‘welcome sign of hope’, Muslim delegates said after two days of high-level talks with Vatican officials.
‘We all make mistakes and those of big stature make big mistakes,’ one of the five Muslim representatives at the talks, Aref Ali Nayed, Director of the Amman, Jordan-based Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, said.
Nayed, who spoke at a Rome news conference, was referring to the September 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, when the pontiff appeared to associate Islam with violence.
‘For some Muslims the wounds (of Regensburg) have not healed and some important Muslims are still boycotting the Vatican’, said Nayed, but added that the results of the discussion between his delegation and top Roman Catholic officials was ‘a sign of great hope’.
The Catholic-Muslim Forum is scheduled to hold its first seminar in Rome from November 4-6, the Vatican said earlier.
The Vatican also said Benedict would receive participants – 24 religious leaders and scholars from each of the Catholic and Muslim sides – attending the three-day long seminar.
‘The sight of our leaders standing with these (Catholic) leaders sends out a positive image to the world,’ Nayed said.
But besides the symbolic importance of the Rome meeting, the Forum – which is destined to meet once every two years in different locations, including majority Muslim nations – would form a ‘permanent’ structure to address interreligious issues including ‘crises and misunderstandings’ he said.
‘We may only meet every two years but we will be communicate every week,’ Nayed said.
Similar meetings between the Muslim representatives, grouped around the ‘A Common Word’ initiative sponsored by Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, and other Christian denominations would also take place, he said.
Included are a July conference with American Protestant Evangelicals at Yale University in New Haven, United States and one with Anglicans in Cambridge, Britain in October.
These and other initiatives – some involving Orthodox Christians, Nayed said – all stem from an open letter released in October 2007 by 138 Muslim high-profile leaders in which they called for greater co- operation with Christians on achieving peace.
The letter by the group – under the auspices of Prince Ghazi’s Amman-based Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, and addressed to Benedict but also to the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist church leaders as well as several Orthodox patriarchs – was widely viewed as a breakthrough in Muslim-Christian relations.
That and the subsequent ‘A Common Word’ initiative was aimed at giving ‘mainstream’ or moderate Islam ‘back its voice,’ Nayed said.
Given the Roman pope’s leadership of over 1.1 billion Roman Catholics in the world, engagement with the Vatican was viewed with ‘upmost importance’, Nayed said.
The theme of November’s seminar would be ‘Love of God, Love of Neighbour,’ while sub-themes included: Theological and Spiritual Foundations, on the first day, and Human Dignity and Mutual Respect on the second. The third say would consist of a ‘public session’.
Benedict has indicated that interreligious dialogue is a priority of his pontificate, but relations with Muslims since he was elected pope in 2005 have been rocky.
The pontiff’s Regensburg speech drew great criticism forcing him to later say his remarks had been misinterpreted and to apologize for the response they provoked, including violence in several countries.
Benedict’s subsequent visit to Turkey where he prayed in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and his meeting last year with King Abdullah have since improved his standing with Muslims.