Vatican Hosts Muslim-Catholic Talks

Historic discussions to advance interfaith relations

(ANSA) – Vatican City, November 4 – A historic series of talks between prominent Muslim and Catholic scholars got under way in the Vatican on Tuesday. The two days of discussions, to be capped off by a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, are focusing on ways to ease religious tensions and advance interfaith relations.

Around 60 delegates are participating in the talks, which opened Tuesday morning with a report from each side on their ideas about how to forge closer ties between the world’s two largest religions.

The discussions are taking place behind closed doors but the delegates will publish a joint declaration on Thursday afternoon following their audience with the pope.

A Vatican press release described the theme of the talks as ”love of God, love of one’s neighbour”, with the first day focusing on theological and spiritual matters, and the second day devoted to ”human dignity and mutual respect”. The Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mustafa Ceric, is leading the Muslim delegates, while Vatican officials are headed by the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.

The meeting is the fruit of an interfaith initiative inspired by a broad coalition of influential Muslim clerics and scholars, the Common Word.

The group was formed in 2006 in an effort to bridge the growing gap between Islam and Christianity, partly as a result of the Danish cartoon furore and partly in response to comments by Pope Benedict which were interpreted as linking Muslims with violence in the past.

The pontiff sparked anger from across the Muslim world after citing a medieval emperor who said Islam was a ‘violent’ religion at a lecture in Regensburg, Germany.

A year after the speech, Common Word sent an open letter to Pope Benedict, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and 25 other Christian leaders, calling for interfaith collaboration.

Originally signed by 138 figures, the number of high-profile Sunni and Shiite Muslims adhering to the letter’s principles has since doubled and includes the religious heads of 43 countries, among which Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In an article published in French daily Le Monde on Tuesday, Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan, a Common Word signatory, said the pope’s speech in Regensburg had paved the way for the current forum. Ramadan, who is attending the Vatican talks, said the impact of the pope’s comments would be ”more positive than negative” in the long run.

”Polemics aside, that speech provoked an awakening of consciousness on the nature of responsibility among Christians as well as Muslims in the West”.

He said the pope’s remarks had fuelled ideas that should be ”explored and exploited positively in order to build bridges”. A detailed agenda for the Vatican event has not been published although each side is expected to raise a range of initiatives aimed at promoting peace and mutual understanding. In an interview with French Catholic daily La Croix, Cardinal Tauran emphasized the importance of religious freedom, pointing to the fact that Christians were not allowed to build churches in some Muslim majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia. However, he said the talks offered ”real glimmers of hope” and said efforts should be made to convert dialogue with the elite into a lasting connection with the masses.

Pope Benedict has made inter-religious dialogue a priority of his papacy and has worked hard to mend relations with Islam since he upset Muslims around the world with his comments in 2006.

In an effort to demonstrate his commitment to fostering goodwill among religions he re-established the Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 2007 after having merged it with the Council for Culture at the start of his pontificate.

The Vatican meeting comes just two weeks after a similar round of talks in the UK with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There around two billion Christians worldwide, about half of whom are Catholics. Muslims number around 1.3 billion.