Unprecedented Catholic-Muslim Talks Urge Religious Freedom – Summary

Rome – Top Muslim and Roman Catholic clerics and scholars wrapped up historic talks Thursday stressing in a declaration that the conference’s slogan of “love of God and love of neighbour” is also intended as an acceptance of individuals’ freedom to practice their religion of choice. Participants of the Catholic-Muslim Forum’s first seminar spelt out the results of their three day long-talks in a 15-point document during a final public session, held at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

A representative of the Muslim side in the talks, the Islamic Society of North America President Ingrid Mattison, said she believed “God’s hand” had guided the forum’s work as it tried to overcome some of the tensions between Christians and Muslims.

“We feel shame that our faiths are cited as a reason or as a justification” for many violent conflicts around the world, Mattison said.

For the Catholic side, the Catholic Institute of Paris’ Professor Joseph Maila, recalled how during earlier sessions participants exchangedtheir life experiences drawn from the communities in which they lived.

“Some of our Muslim brethren spoke of the pains they suffered relatedto Islamophobia, while we talked of our pain for sometimes being branded as Crusaders,” Maila said.

The Forum resolved to continue contacts and to hold a second seminar in 2010 in a Muslim-majority country yet to be determined.

Earlier Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI and the head of the Muslim delegation, Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Shaykh Mustafa Ceric, clasped hands and then hugged each other when the pontiff met Forum participants.

Benedict on Thursday, stressed “fundamental human rights,” which he said, Christians and Muslims shared.

“Political and religious leaders have the duty of ensuring the free exercise of these rights in full respect for each individual’s freedom of conscience and freedom of religion,” the pontiff told forum members, including representatives from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Western nations.

The Vatican, which emphasizes the need for “reciprocity” in relations between different religions, has lamented that those who convert from Islam to other religions often face persecution in some predominantly Muslim countries.

“The discrimination and violence which even today religious people experience throughout the world, and the often violent persecutions to which they are subject, represent unacceptable and unjustifiable acts, all the more grave and deplorable when they are carried out in the name of God,” Benedict said, without giving specific examples.

US-based Islamic scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr who also spoke at the papal audience, touched on the volatile issue of Christians spreading their message among Muslims.

“Muslims do not allow an aggressive proselytizing in our midst that would destroy our faith in the name of freedom,” Nasr told the pontiff.

Christians would also adopt the same stance, if they were “in our situation,” he added, without providing further details.

The Forum’s formation stems from a October 2007 open letter sent by 138 Muslim representatives to the Pope and to other heads of Christian churches inviting them to engage in dialogue.

The initiative, named A Common Word, proposed working together to avoid a repetition of incidents such as the violent protests in the Islamic world triggered by the 2005publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.

This week’s talks in Rome also represent the latest move in rapprochement between the Vatican and Muslims since Benedict’s controversial 2006 speech in Regensburg,Germany in which he appeared to associate Islam with violence.

Through the A Common Word initiative, Muslim scholars and clerics have already held similar meetings with US Protestant Evangelical Christians and with Anglicans in Britain.